Bay County is moving ahead with plans for a new boat ramp on Crooked Creek near West Bay, but not everyone is on board. A group of citizens opposes the ramp and they're preparing for a fight.
The county is working on a deal with The St. Joe Company for approximately 23 acres of land just north of the Crooked Creek Bridge on County Road 388. The company is obligated to donate more than 100 acres of park land in exchange for approval of its plans to develop the West Bay sector.
"It just seemed like a good way to afford some more recreational opportunities for the citizens here," said Commissioner Guy Tunnell.
Opponents, including a group called Friends of Crooked Creek and homeowners who live on the creek, are concerned that a new ramp will lead to increased traffic on the waterway and environmental issues. "I don't think anyone that lives here on the creek would appreciate it," said Harry Yarborough, a 35 year resident. "The biggest problem would be the erosion of the creek itself."
Barbara Gudgel, who lives in the RiverCamps development off CR 388, represents the citizens' group. She said existing boat ramps on Burnt Mill Creek and at the B. V. Buchanan Bridge in West Bay are sufficient for now. "Let's put a new boat ramp in when we have more growth maybe in the area," she said. "Now is not the right time."
An "unofficial" ramp is located at the base of the CR 388 bridge over Crooked Creek and has been used for years. It's not paved and there is no dock, restrooms or parking. Boaters back their way down a narrow, rocky passage to the water's edge and launch their vessels, then park on the side of the highway.
"What we're using now is just not satisfactory," said Tunnell. "People are using it but it's not safe."
The commissioner said the county is trying to plan for future growth of the area that is now home to Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. "Growth is inevitable and I think controlled growth is important," said Tunnell. "That's what we're trying to do here... we're trying to make for a better facility."
Gudgel said she's concerned that an increase in boat traffic will damage the environment. She would prefer a canoe launch, or at least a "no wake" zone, and objects to the proposed site of the ramp near bluffs along a bend in the creek. "Crooked Creek is a very shallow, narrow, pristine estuary," she said. "In some places along the creek... you'll see the erosion already."
Rodney King said a new ramp on Crooked Creek will relieve pressure on the Burnt Mill Creek ramp near his home. He accused newcomers to the area of being selfish. "Some of the locals out here in the new housing projects don't want anybody else out here," he said, referring the RiverCamps residents. "They believe it's all theirs and I don't believe that's right."
"This is not all about just the people at RiverCamps," said Gudgel. "This is many people in Bay County that are opposed to funding yet another boat ramp."
Tunnell said the new ramp will be well maintained and compatible with the environment. "We're not going to please everybody with this, but I think it's going to give those folks that use this area a safer, more enjoyable experience," he said.
Members of the Friends of Crooked Creek organization plan to appear before the county commission when the board takes up the issue, possibly at a meeting in December. Although plans for the new ramp are not finalized, homeowners are digging in.
"We'll fight it as long as we have to," said Yarborough.