State adds to park pot

By Steve Estes

It appears as though the long dormant old Big Pine swimming hole at the island’s west end will see new life in the near future.

As part of this budget year, the Monroe Board of County Commissioners set aside $1 million to develop a passive recreational park at the site.

Owned by the Department of Environmental Protection Division of State Parks, the 11-acre site has several acres of usable upland.

At one time, the area was a favorite gathering spot for locals for lazy days in the sun and water, but several years ago the Marine Mammal Conservancy used the deep basin there for the rehabilitation of a pod of stranded pilot whales. No agency paid for the clean up of the water after the successful release of the whales and it was closed to the public.

Since then, the area has been used primarily as a safe haven for the liveaboard boaters in North Pine Channel during storms, other than that lying fallow.

A group of island residents made an attempt about five years ago to get the county to develop a passive park on the site but couldn’t get BOCC approval for the project.

When the state showed a renewed interest in something being done with the waterfront parcel, steam began to build again for a gateway park to Big Pine Key at the site.

The site is located just east of the Pine Channel causeway on the ocean side. It has an accompanying parcel on the north side of US 1, but development proposals haven’t included that parcel as yet.

The state Department of Transportation last week informed county staff that it was willing to match the county’s $1 million for development of the site, and has put $100,000 in design money into this year’s five-year work program plan.

The $1 million for construction costs is being held in abeyance until the state sees movement from the county on site development, such as the implementation of a workable plan for developing the area.

Under a plan drawn up about five years ago by County Marine Planner Rich Jones, the park could have a kayak/canoe launch, a dingy dock, a series of educational kiosks to inform visitors of the wildlife and flora to be found in the area, and possibly a sunset observation tower.

The plans also called for a boardwalk through the mangroves.

The state DEP at one time had set aside money to develop the area into a trail head for the Overseas Heritage Trail bike/pedestrian path but that funding disappeared for some other higher-priority projects before the county could get  behind the proposal.

According to County Transportation Planner Trish Smith, incorporating the site into the Heritage Trail is a natural match because of its prime waterfront location and accessibility to trail segments.

Because the state money comes with some public participation caveats, Smith said that meetings will have to be held to get public input on what the local community would like to see done at the park. Those meetings won’t start, however, until funding is secured.

While County Commissioner George Neugent has said that he believes the county and state match money will be more than enough for  the project, there may be other sources of revenue to draw from.

Because the park will cater to tourists who are using the Heritage Trail, the most-widely-used path of its kind in Florida by the way, Neugent believes that Tourist Development Council money set aside for bricks and mortar projects can be tapped into.

His one concern is ongoing maintenance costs for the park, a bill the other commissioners have been somewhat unwilling to commit to in other iterations of the project over the years.

“That can probably be dealt with by TDC money as well,” said Neugent. “We just have to get a little creative in the development of the park to make it fit the TDC criteria.”

The TDC’s District Advisory Council Two encompasses all of Big Pine Key, down to Stock Island. The organization currently funnels money into the county budget each year for maintenance and operational costs at Veteran’s Park on the extreme other end of the Big Pine Key area.

Public input for the eventual design of the park will probably be handled during regular meetings of the county’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.

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