A New Pirates Cove Park

The following article appeared in the May 24,2020 Citrus County Chronicle

Ozello’s Pirates Cove Park Revisited

Gary Rankel, Guest Column

As an avid angler and retired biologist with over 30 years of experience developing and managing fish, wildlife and outdoor recreation resources and related public use programs throughout the country, I’ve long believed the county should acquire the 3.6 acres of prime waterfront property bordering Pirates Point Community Park at the west end of Ozello Trail, and develop the combined site into a prime eco-tourism destination for paddlers, anglers, picnickers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts.  Vacant lots located near Sanddollar Lane might also be incorporated into the park. 

There’s no doubt in my mind that such a park (along with a boat ramp on the Barge Canal) would be game changers for the county’s tourism program, offer solid benefit / cost rewards, and pay for themselves in a few years.    

This area, bordering the St Martins Marsh and recently passed Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, would provide the perfect complement to existing nature oriented opportunities involving manatee interactions, scalloping, biking and charter fishing, and would serve as a centerpiece of the county’s tourism program.  It would have both local and regional appeal and become a popular destination on the annual kayak fishing circuit, among canoe and kayak clubs and for other visitors looking to experience Old Florida.  

Within a short paddle of this property, folks can encounter manatees, dolphins, sea turtles, rays, a variety of shorebirds and other marine life in gorgeous backcountry settings.  Excellent fisheries habitat exists around miles of mangrove shorelines, extensive salt marshes, sea grass beds, oyster bars and hard bottom substrates, all of which serve as nursery areas for popular sport fish and other marine life in this extraordinary and largely unspoiled ecosystem.  

This property once housed a restaurant and  tavern that was destroyed by the no-name storm in 1993.  Since then, the owner, Mr. George Decker, now deceased, has submitted applications to re-zone the area and develop a large resort condominium complex on the site.  Fortunately, these proposals have been denied by the Board of County Commissioners because of the environmental damage they would cause to this sensitive area.    

An eco-tourism park, on the other hand, would require only portable and easily transportable structures such as porta-jons, picnic tables, stationary grills, and, perhaps, a small kayak rental and food service trailer, all of which could be secured in place and safely cleared from the site before the next “big blow”, leaving the area in its natural state.  Small charges for parking, launching or overnight camping might be considered to cover maintenance.  Related service and caretaker jobs could be made available to the community. 

Paddlesports, including kayak fishing, are the fastest growing outdoor recreation activities in the country, with Florida leading the way in numbers of users.  The suitability of Pirates Cove to host such activities is further described and depicted on the Kayakbeach website (http://kayakbeach.com/ozello/ozello.html) and in the Fish Finder and Boosting Tourism sections of the Nature Coast Kayak Fishers website (http://fishingkayaks.us). 

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the normally uncrowded Pirates Point Park into one inundated with paddlers and boaters, often standing shoulder to shoulder as they unload and launch their vessels.  Scores of retirees from The Villages, Top of the World and other retirement communities seeking to relieve cabin fever and related  stress, as well as anglers up from bay area where many ramps and sport fisheries have been closed, have become regulars.  A few of them now even email me for a fishing report before heading over. 

On most weekdays, I can still manage to hit the water before first light and paddle to one of my “secret spots” before the throng arrives.  No such luck on weekends when I now have to put in north of Yankeetown to find some elbow room.   

Last year, Commissioner Jeff Kinnard, with support from the Ozello community, proposed purchasing Mr. Decker’s property and developing it into a public use area.  This parcel would also now provide valuable space to relieve crowding and achieve a much higher degree of social distancing, not only at Pirates Cove, but at Hunter Springs Park and other launch sites as well.  With all of the uncertainty about how long COVID will be with us, this park could also help sustain tourist related businesses in the county.        

Unfortunately, negotiations over purchase price seem to have stalled and the property remains vacant and unused.  Despite it’s reported purchase price of $464,000 in 2004 and $260,000 appraisal value, at least one county commissioner believes the land is next to worthless, and not worth a reasonable offer.  I’m afraid that such attitudes may hinder the BOCC from offering and negotiating a fair price, leading the owner to subdivide the parcel into home sites, thereby destroying its natural beauty and public use potentials forever.   

Here’s hoping some of our forward thinking community leaders who helped develop Three Sisters into what it is today, and supported the recent passage of the Nature Coast Aquatic Preserve, will get behind the effort to acquire and develop a Pirates Cove Park for current and future generations to enjoy. 

Letters and emails of support to the BOCC (brian.coleman@citrusbocc.gov) will probably be required to keep this issue from falling through the cracks.