NAPLES — A plan to allow off-road vehicles at a former jetport in the Big Cypress National Preserve cleared a Collier County hurdle Wednesday.
The county’s Environmental Advisory Council voted 3-2 to recommend approval of a proposal to create the Dade-Collier Cypress Recreation Area on 1,600 acres north of U.S. 41 East at the Dade-Collier line.
Miami-Dade County, which owns the site, wants to build a visitor’s center, campgrounds, fishing piers, an archery range, hiking trails and trails for all-terrain vehicles and off-highway motorcycles.
Park planners said the proposal would reduce the number of trails that already exist at the jetport, which still operates as a training airport, and would provide a safe alternative for off-roaders.
Even supporters of the proposal on the EAC admitted to having doubts about it.
“I think the good it’s going to do outweighs the bad,” EAC member Mike Sorrell said. “We need it; it’s going to have to happen.”
But critics worried that off road vehicles don’t belong at a site Collier County’s growth plan designates for conservation.
“I believe there is a need (for an ATV-riding site) but this is not the right place,” EAC member Andrew Dickman said.
Dickman and EAC Chairwoman Judith Hushon voted no.
The vote, the most significant since county commissioners appointed a new EAC, is at odds with a county staff recommendation that the plan not be approved for the former jetport site.
Plans to build the massive jetport ignited a nationwide grassroots movement to save the Everglades and led to the creation of the Big Cypress National Preserve in 1974.
Sportsmen’s groups and environmental advocates have gone to court to fight over how much off road vehicle access the law that set up the preserve allows.
The issue has become even hotter in Collier County in the aftermath of the South Florida Water Management District’s failure to live up to a pledge to find an alternative site for ATV riders in return for the county turning over roads in the Picayune Strand State Forest for an environmental restoration project south of Interstate 75.
The Miami-Dade plan would cut the amount of trails at the jetport from between 40 and 50 miles to between 10 and 15 miles, park planner Andy McCall told the EAC.
The trails would avoid part of the site favored by endangered Florida panthers, planners said.
Traditional campsites that have been used since the 1940s would be moved to other areas north of the jetport’s lone east-west runway, they said.
Swamp buggies would not be allowed on the new trails, which would be stabilized and not elevated so water still can flow across the swampy site, which is about 93 percent wetlands. Opponents questioned whether the recreation area would be closed for high water too often to meet the needs of ATV riders in South Florida.
“We’ll manage it as it goes along,” special projects manager Kevin Asher said.
The Miami-Dade plan next goes to the county’s Planning Commission for a recommendation in October.
County commissioners are scheduled to take up the plan in January or February.
The state Department of Community Affairs also would have to sign off on the plan before it could become effective.
“This is a little ant hill,” Sorrell told Miami-Dade park planners. “The hurdles are going to be huge as you move forward with this.”
Follow environment reporter Eric Staats at twitter.com/ndn_estaats.