At the May 8, 2018 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting, the board voted unanimously to approve funding from the Quality Of Life fund to replace the Bayport Pier, fix the Pine Island Observation Deck and construct a service road for a kayak pull-out area two miles from the headspring, where Flohana and Boating in Florida conduct commercial kayak-rental businesses.
Parks and Recreation Manager Harry Johnson presented to the board the three projects, with the kayak pull-out point being a topic of heavy discussion lately due to overcrowding on the Weeki Wachee River. Currently, the ride from the headspring to Rogers Park is 5.5 miles, and with the state limitation of 70 kayakers leaving the headspring per hour, there are still hundreds of kayaks on the river making their way to Roger’s Park. The pull-out point two miles downriver is expected to alleviate the congestion.
The Bayport Pier was damaged by Hurricane Hermine in 2016 and needs to be replaced. According to Johnson, the difference after using Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds will be $109,825.44. Deputy County Administrator Jeff Rogers explained that FEMA is expected to reimburse this amount at a later date, however there is a possibility that FEMA may not approve all expenses, and that Parks and Recreation is requesting that the Quality of Life Fund absorb any overage.
Chairman Steve Champion recognized the pier as being another long-running and often discussed topic, and asked how long the replacement project is expected to take after funding is in place. Rogers briefly explained the process leading to the incoming bids, and expects the pier to be open to the public this fall.
The Pine Island Observation Deck was also damaged during Hurricane Hermine, and following the same process for bids and obtaining funds from FEMA, Johnson requested $16,044.19. FEMA’s engineers appraised the repair cost at $8,030.31, and the winning bid from a local contractor estimated repairs to be around $23,000. When Johnson questioned the large discrepancy, he was told by FEMA to collect more bids, which came in with higher estimates.
First to comment on the FEMA estimate, Commissioner John Allocco said, “It’s amazing that FEMA would think you could do it for eight grand… you can’t even buy a shed from Home Depot for eight grand.”
Commissioner Champion questioned the necessity of the observation deck, which Johnson acknowledged does subtract “beach space” from an already small beach. However, Johnson reported that the deck had been used frequently for sunset viewing, weddings, and promoted local tourism. Commissioner Wayne Dukes added that the unseen portion of the photo shown was “nothing but rocks,” and that the sand on the side of the walkway to the deck was placed by the county. Dukes suggested that perhaps the county reach out to local firms to sponsor the observation deck in return for placing the firm’s signage on the finished deck.
The service road planned for the Weeki Wachee River take-out point is an estimated 0.66 mile stretch which is estimated to cost $55,620. The county has been working with state Sensitive Lands groups and the Department of Public Works (DPW) to facilitate the project which Champion called “a huge win for everyone involved.” According to Johnson, the early take-out will result in a 40% reduction in kayaks in the river beyond that point, and landing at Roger’s Park.
Concerned citizen Shannon Turbeville, corresponded with the county prior to the May 8, 2018 meeting approving the funding for the Weeki Wachee River kayak pullout stating, “Why is Hernando County considering using $55,620 of taxpayer money to fund a road on state property that will benefit state park patrons? According to the agenda description it is to “alleviate some of the commercial activity at Rogers Park.”
He continued, “Why can’t the Board save the $55,000 and at the next vendor contract renewal (this year) simply limit the numbers of commercial activity at Rogers Park? You have the authority to control the amount of commercial activity at your parks without costing your tax payers. If you do decide to go ahead and fund this, would there be a cap implemented at Rogers Park on commercial activity so you can be ensured your residents and visitors can once again use the public kayak ramp at the county park? Currently, up to 70 commercial rental vessels per hour are authorized to be taken out from the one and only public kayak ramp. Why agree to this unless an immediate contract addendum with Guest Services can take place specifying that a maximum of 42 kayaks per hour will be retrieved from Rogers Park (that is 40% of 70)?”
Deputy Administrator Jeff Rogers replied, “For the upstream Kayak removal location on the Weeki Wachee River this is intended to remove the numbers of Kayakers that travel down the entire length of the river, thus shortening the amount of time the kayakers are using the resource. As you are aware, the 4-5 hour trip currently is too long for many users to stay in their kayaks. Upon getting out of the kayaks damage is done to the vegetation in the river and on the surrounding properties. I believe more damage is done to the resource from the users that exit their kayaks than just more kayakers traveling down the river. However, the carrying capacity study that the BOCC and SWFWMD approved for funding will provide us factual data in the future on the best practices.
I will suggest to the BOCC tomorrow the following Policy numbers be considered for use of the funding:
4. Funds will be used to improve resource based recreation. Kayaking is a Passive Recreation as listed in the Hernando County Management Plan for Linda Pederson Preserve. While I agree the addition of a kayak removal location is a structural enhancement to the river and not the desire along the river, the goal of limiting the degradation of the river by decreasing the amount of time kayakers are on the river and leaving their kayaks hopefully will result in a net gain for the river.
6. The Quality of Life fund may be considered for use to further state and federal projects or programs, designated under the ESL program, that are designated to protect, conserve, and enhance environmental resources. I believe FDEP is working to conserve the resource of the Weeki Wachee River, and our partnership will help achieve this goal.
You have concern that we might spend this funding and the kayakers will still only use Rogers Park. While, I agree that is a possibility, I think it is a minimal risk to try and improve the quality of life for our citizens and visitors that want to enjoy Rogers Park and the Weeki Wachee river. We can’t succeed or fail if we do not try.”