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Access to County’s Great Outdoors May Be Changing

Sarasota County staffers are looking at changes to outdoor recreation. Camping and kayaking are under scrutiny.

Should South Lido Beach be wall-to-wall kayaks? Should everybody be allowed the opportunity to camp on county property? In coming months, county parks staffers will present their vision of how these resources should be managed.

The Sarasota County commission considered these issues on Wednesday afternoon, as staff asked for guidance. The county promotes eco-tourism, but if a constant parade of kayaks through South Lido’s “mangrove tunnels” scares away the wildlife, will it diminish the experience?

Right now a number of firms rent kayaks on South Lido. At times it can be hard for private kayakers to get their craft in the water because vendors block access. John McCarthy, former parks chief and now in charge of recreational tourism development, looked to other coastal communities for guidance.

“The county has received complaints from vendors about other vendors. Some are brick-and-mortar stores, others have a trailer and a Web site. Who has permission to operate on the beach?” he asked.

McCarthy recently attended a meeting of the Florida Society for Ethical Eco-Tourism, a new group formed by merchants, environmental groups and staffers in Lee, Collier and Charlotte Counties. They started a volunteer certification program with four levels, from basic rentals to tours guided by trained ecologists. McCarthy is thinking of starting a chapter here, for Sarasota, Manatee and perhaps DeSoto counties.

“We need to clarify things for the vendor. Maybe we should require a vendor permit to operate in the parks,” he told the county commission. “At South Lido, there’s probably $500,000 to $600,000 worth of business taking place. We provide the parking, the launching area, clean the restrooms and pick up the trash.”

He said Collier, Lee and Pinellas counties charge a flat fee to vendors. “We need to begin to create a bit of fiscal sustainability at the site to maintain the appearance, cleanliness and safety,” he said. Another idea is to limit the number of kayaks the vendors can bring to the area.

Kayaking is a rapidly growing sport. And so is stand-up paddleboarding, which is also using South Lido as a launching spot. Commission Chair Nora Patterson said, “Perhaps we could place a limit on the number of permits per area? There is a certain carrying capacity. I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking, 'I wouldn’t want to go there and do this, except on a rainy day.' "

McCarthy was instructed to draft a request for proposal to be circulated among the vendors and discuss their thoughts on a permitting system. “I’ll convene a larger audience, including the kayak clubs, to refine these ideas,” he said.

After McCarthy sat down, Carolyn Brown stood up to fill in the commission about her plan to open up some county land to camping. The interim general manager of parks and recreation said she was considering “camping weekends” from November through April.

Right now it is almost impossible to go camping legally on county-owned land. Youth groups like scouts and their adult leaders can camp, but adults are rarely allowed to overnight on their own. Brown’s plan would keep the scouts but open up two or three county-owned areas for adults and their families.

The Mabry Carlton Reserve, the Knights Trail Park and perhaps Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park are under consideration. She is considering three levels of activity. The easiest would be a site near the parking lot, with full facilities. A middle-level experience would follow a hike to a somewhat improved site, probably with rest rooms. The trek option would be wilderness camping with no facilities.

While commissioners were keen on kayak regulation, they were less enthusiastic about the camping idea.

“We cannot afford a couple of new staff members to monitor this activity,” Patterson said. “I have some trepidation.”

Commissioner Jon Thaxton — who has camped the county since childhood and tries to do a week-long kayak-camping trip in the Everglades every year — was not enthusiastic. “It will be a very difficult management issue,” he said.

Commissioners did not stop Brown from fleshing out the concept, but it will probably proceed in baby steps. 

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