By DOTTY NIST
In the wake of public input in December, the state has made changes to the draft plan for Camp Helen State Park, deleting cabins and related development that had been part of the original plan and shortening a boardwalk proposed to be constructed along the beach.
The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had hosted a Dec. 17 public meeting in Panama City Beach on a 10-year plan for the southwestern Bay County state park. The consensus of attendees had been that a number of the proposed improvements to the state park would actually reduce its desirability—while preserving more of the park’s natural habitat would be more of an enhancement.
Straddling U.S. 98, 182-acre Camp Helen State Park contains many historic structures on its south side. The park is bounded on three sides by Phillips Inlet, the gulf, and Lake Powell, a coastal dune lake classified as an Outstanding Florida Water.
In response to the previous public input, a revised 10-year plan was presented to the public on Jan. 28 in Panama City Beach.
The revised plan is minus the 10-12 acre group camp area with six to 12 cabins and a central recreation/dining building, which had previously been proposed for the portion of the park lying north of U.S. 98.
However, the revised plan continues to propose a day-use area for the north side, with picnic pavilions, restrooms and parking, along with the expansion of trails and an access road to serve the day-use area. A small concession structure is also mentioned as a possibility on the north side.
The new plan continues to call for a new combined visitor center/concession building, along with the construction of restrooms in the area of the existing visitor center. Other proposals carrying over from the original plan for the south side include a new boat dock at the side of the old dock in front of the historic Camp Helen Lodge. It is noted that the dock will be “designed to serve motorized boats and have the ability to dock and disembark larger water craft such as tour boats or water taxis visiting the area.”
Additional proposals for the south side are a canoe/launch area along Phillips Inlet near the bridge, along with making “one continuous pathway” of paths connecting the area containing historic structures, the beach, and existing nature trails. Extending to the south, a boardwalk proposed to be constructed to connect the historic area, the beach area, and the nature trail has been shortened in response to public comment that it would have impacted shorebird bird-nesting area as previously designed.
Emily Ellis is vice-chair for the Lake Powell Community Alliance (LPCA) and serves on the Camp Helen State Park Advisory Group. LPCA is a community-based group dedicated to preservation of Lake Powell’s water quality and biodiversity.
Ellis also participated in public meetings held locally on the draft park plan and provided comments on the plan.
Ellis told the Herald/Breeze that since receiving a copy of the revised plan, she had polled members of the community and asked residents for their comments. She said she had found that concerns continued to exist.
While the cabins have been deleted from the plan, Ellis said there is some opposition to the proposed day-use area because it will eliminate habitat on the north side of the park.
“Any development on the north side requiring roads and infrastructure seemed to be an issue;” she said, “most wanted walking/hiking trails only.”
While there is agreement that more parking is needed, the community sentiment is that it should be located near the park entrance, she said.
Ellis said the boat dock as proposed to serve large vessels remains a major concern for the community.
“Accommodating private interests and an increase of commercial-type watercraft, compounded with the addition of new users expected due to a development boom around Lake Powell, will impact water quality,” she warned.
Ellis said community support had been indicated for restoration of the existing small dock as a fishing pier.
Regarding the boardwalk proposed for construction along the beach, Ellis said there were still concerns about possible disturbance of nesting shorebirds even with the shortened boardwalk. She relayed a suggestion for a pay-scope that would allow park patrons to view nesting areas from a distance.
Ellis reported no support for food concessions in the park. There was some support for proposed canoe/kayak rentals on the condition that the number of rentals be limited to six craft, she noted.
Ellis identified a number of portions of the proposed 10-year plan for which community support had been identified. Among these were the new administration building, reasonable improvements to historic buildings, extension of walking and biking trails on the north side of the park, additional interpretive signage and programs, the day use canoe/kayak launch on the north side, and the restoration of the park’s duck pond.
DEP did not respond to calls from the Herald/Breeze seeking information and comment on the park plan.
Final approval of the park plan is expected to be considered by the state Acquisition and Recreation Council at its April 11 meeting in Tallahassee.
The plan is available for viewing online at http://sharepoint.dep.state.fl.us/PublicNotices.
By DOTTY NIST