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Concerns raised about proposed changes at river swimming hole

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image Part of the citizen concern over proposed changes at the south end of 24th Street S.E centers on this new floating dock featuring easy use apparatus for handicapped canoe and kayak fans. Melody Jameson Photo

Proposed changes designed for public safety at a “Redneck Riviera” here are generating questions...


RUSKIN – Proposed changes designed for public safety at a “Redneck Riviera” here are generating questions, if not reddening some local necks.

As a consequence, Hillsborough’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department has scheduled a meeting for Saturday in the area.

Responding to complaints about drug use and unacceptable public behavior after dark on and around the north shore of the Little Manatee River at the foot of 24th Street S.E., the department drafted plans for a fenced parking area and a second gate across the roadway some 200 feet north of the riverfront. The plans are intended to encourage orderly parking of vehicles rather than leaving them haphazardly along the roadside and to provide more security by inhibiting vehicle access to the shoreline, particularly after dark.

The proposal also would, however, require river users to hand carry their gear, including boats, the additional distance from the parking area to the water.

The site is a historic natural swimming hole – the sort of place frequently described by southerners as a “Redneck Riviera” - in the middle of acreage acquired as one of the county’s ELAPP (Environmental Lands Acquisition and Preservation Program) purchases. The property is bisected by the roadway, with the Camp Bayou Outdoor Learning Center located to the east and forested walking trails to the west.

A June 30 article in The Observer outlined the new public safety provisions as well as detailed recent installation of a floating dock with built- in kayak and canoe launching features, along with two regulation handicapped parking pads, located within Camp Bayou and accessible only through the learning center’s 24th street gate. Camp Bayou currently is open for five hours during the middle of three days per week – Thursday through Saturday.

The outdoor learning center is manned solely by volunteers led by Dolly Cummings, its designated director, under management by the Ruskin Community Development Foundation (RCDF) which has a long term working agreement with Hillsborough County. Both the learning center and RCDF are not–for-profit operations with tax exemption status under the 501(c) 3 section of the federal tax code and with the obligations accompanying the tax exemption. Cummings is a member of the RCDF board of directors. She did not respond to a telephone message from The Observer.

The situation has prompted a number of questions. Jim Flynn, a Wimauma area resident who picks up kayakers and canoe enthusiasts ending their river trips at the swimming hole, said he visits the 24th street site four to five times each week. Making the area “less friendly to the public/users will only drive (legitimate) users away,” he told The Observer, adding that if he cannot use the riverfront at that point to pick up boaters, fewer “people will be coming into the area to spend money on food/gas/etc.”

Flynn questioned whether input had been sought from the actual users before plans for change were made. He noted that an existing gate at the northern border of the ELAPP property, originally designed to prohibit access to the area when closed, is unusable and suggested the circumstance could signal future conditions and costs for a second gate.

He also asked whether Camp Bayou would be opened longer hours during more days each week so that the new floating dock could be used by the public, including handicapped boaters, or if it represents a $16,000 waste because access is so severely limited.

Flynn pointed out, in addition, that he sees citizens regularly picking up and properly disposing of trash, and that he has done the same, in an effort to maintain the area. The three or four trash cans, some of them donated by citizens, he added, are emptied by county personnel twice each week. He said he also has seen patrolling deputy sheriffs in the area.

Asked how he would resolve the dilemma of providing public safety while still preserving public enjoyment of the riverfront, Flynn suggested street lighting to illuminate the area at night and more emphasis on a law enforcement presence.

Margit Redlawsk sounded the same note as she described how much she and her husband value the river access from 24th Street. The Ruskin couple launch their jon boat and trolling motor at that point on the river at least once a week, she said, and then proceed up river to fish and to enjoy glimpses of the area wildlife in natural habitat. It is the only launch site available to them, she noted. More careful and continual patrolling of the area, Redlawsk added, would improve the situation.

Major Ron Hartley, commander of the sheriff’s office district 4 area encompassing all of the South County, said that deputies do patrol the 24th street sector and noted that there are two deputies assigned solely to work associated with county parks. Both are attached to the sheriff’s Falkenburg Road complex. They did not respond to a telephone inquiry from The Observer.

Arthur “Mac” Miller, a Ruskin native, former military officer in charge of security planning and retired university professor, also has been raising an alarm about potentially eliminating the last public river access for boaters. Miller, who is both a RCDF board member and Camp Bayou volunteer, said he was not speaking for either organization but rather as a life-long local citizen when he began questioning feasibility of the parks department plan and raising the possibility of unintended negative consequences.

Father of a young daughter, Miller frequently takes his family for a dip in the river swimming hole which has been popular with locals for at least a half century, he said. The site also is the last public launch point on the river available to more than two small boaters at a time, he added. “And I don’t think the public should have their access to the last convenient site so severely limited,” he asserted.

The retired professor told The Observer this week he has heard criticism in recent days about use of the term “Redneck Riviera” in connection with the river site, based on assumptions the phrase is intended to be insulting. Actually, “Redneck Riviera” is an “honorific” among southerners who understand its definition, he pointed out, a term of affection. It refers to recreational places off the beaten path which constitute informal, unpretentious, non-resort-like gathering spots. Another example of a popular “Redneck Riviera” is the Myakka River State Park with its rustic cabins, long riverfront and untouched forest. Still others are found in North Florida, he added, suggesting that the Little Manatee River swimming hole qualifies as a true “Redneck Riviera.”

Miller also questioned whether a catchment area should be required in connection with the parks department’s planned parking lot and whether an archeological survey would be done prior to disturbing the area for the parking facility construction. However, rather than cutting off access to the river for many day-time users with a second gate, he added, repairing and arranging daily opening/closing of the existing gate might be a better investment. In addition, a neighborhood watch might be instituted, he noted.

These are issues he may be able to raise during the Saturday meeting. Miller said he was advised last week by Ross Dickerson, a conservation section manager, that the session is set for 11 AM in Camp Bayou.

The Observer tried but was unable to confirm the meeting before deadline. ELAPP Manager Forest Turbiville was scheduled to be out of the office for most of the week. Dickerson, out of the office much of last week, was unavailable until Tuesday.

Ken Bradshaw, also working in the conservation section, referred The Observer to Richard Sullivan, conservation area manager at Cockroach Bay, who said he had no knowledge of the situation and could only refer to Dickerson, who was unavailable.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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