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County Parks Department plan changes for local ‘Redneck Riviera’

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image It may not be the beaches of Aruba or Miami or even Coquina Key, but “Redneck Riviera” (above) on the north shore of the Little Manatee River has been a locally-favored swimming hole on a hot summer afternoon for generations. Melody Jameson Photo

A proposed parking lot may mean changes for a locally favorite swimming hole.

By MELODY JAMESON

RUSKIN – Concerned about criminal activity at night and public protections during the day, Hillsborough County is planning changes at one of this area’s most historic – and still popular - swimming holes.

Those changes, however, also will effectively close a roadway, and discourage small boat launching at the last such site in the area, contends a member of the area’s most historic family.

But, a new boat launching facility has been provided close by, responds county staff.

Yes, but access to it is limited to five hours on three days of the week, is the comeback.

This is the conversation currently in play over proposed efforts at enhancing public safety on the Little Manatee River by Hillsborough’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.

The site in question, also known as “Redneck Riviera,” is the sandy beach on the river’s north shore, located at the southern end of 24th Street S.E. The roadway bisects substantial preservation acreage and forms the western boundary of the Camp Bayou Environmental Learning Center, operated by volunteers under management by the Ruskin Community Development Foundation.

The parks department’s current plan is to construct a seven to 10-space parking lot on the west side of 24th street, a short distance north of the Camp Bayou entrance, according to Forest Turbiville, a manager in the ELAPP (Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program) section of the department.

The lot, expected to encompass between a half to a full acre of vacant land, will be enclosed with bollards and cable, surfaced with shell, and include two gates, one leading to trails in the untouched ELAPP land to the west and another walk-through gate leading south to the river. The paved roadway will be closed to vehicle traffic immediately south of the Camp Bayou entrance, Turbiville said.

Part of the purpose is to eliminate as much as possible illegal activity on and near the river shoreline at night, he added. “It’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll down there” at times, Turbiville noted.

Another objective is creating an orderly parking area for the families who regularly enjoy swimming, tubing and rafting in the river and hikers using the trails during the day, he added. Orderly parking of vehicles, as opposed to leaving vehicles in a haphazard manner along the roadsides, should improve public safety, Turbiville suggested.

And, yes, he acknowledged, the plan will require that swimmers parking in the new lot walk perhaps 200 feet further to reach the river shore, carrying whatever water accessories they favor, including a canoe, kayak or jon boat.

However, if this is a hardship, the ELAPP manager pointed out, a new boat launching ramp has been installed on the river “ox bow” a short distance up river from the swimming hole and easily accessed by driving into Camp Bayou. In addition to adequate vehicle parking in the vacant scrub, two regulation handicapped parking pads also have been built near the new launch facility.

Perhaps a good plan in theory, but not very practical given the current conditions, said Dr. Arthur “Mac” Miller, retired university professor, Ruskin native and direct descendant of the pioneering Miller family which founded the community. Miller, father of a pre-teen and a Camp Bayou board director, said he frequently takes his family for a summer-day swim in the river just as generations of his family did before him, adding that the north shore swimming hole has been a community fixture for decades.

Blocking vehicle access to the southern tip of 24th Street not only will increase the walking – and carrying - distance for swimmers, picnickers, and river watchers, but also will inhibit use of the site for boat launching. ‘And it’s the last accessible launching site for small boats in the area,” Miller asserted. Most of the public launch places on Tampa Bay’s south eastern shore have been closed as have the facilities in Manatee Heritage Park, he added, and smaller places such as the one-slip Domino Park or a similar site up river simply are too inadequate for an afternoon crowd of boaters.

As for the new $16,000 floating dock with its double boat launch feature within Camp Bayou, Miller agreed it would be an asset if only it were available to boaters for more than a few hours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

In response, Turbiville said the department would like to see Camp Bayou open more hours on more days, but that present budget constraints do not allow for employment of a ranger or additional help.

As it is, he added, the $5,000 to $10,000 parking lot project probably will not begin until October or November, after the next fiscal year‘s budget monies become available.

Miller, on the other hand, indicated he favors depending more heavily on careful control of the existing gate across 24th Street several hundred feet north of the new parking lot site and the Camp Bayou entrance. This barrier, providing access to all of the ELAPP property surrounding the southern end of 24th Street, should be opened every morning and closed each night routinely, he said, thereby preventing access to the river after dark and protecting the “hefty public asset” that is Camp Bayou while giving citizens access to the river during the day and to the new boat launch in a more frequently opened learning center.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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