News-Sun photo by CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY Jan Grove is one of many individuals speaking in favor of Swamp Hammock, because of the safe, supervised opportunity it provides teenagers to play outdoors.
published: Friday, March 01, 2013
Community debates Swamp Hammock: Is it a benefit or a curse
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Although no action was taken at the county commission's quasi-judicial public hearing Tuesday night, the meeting provided supporters and critics of the proposed Swamp Hammock Outdoor Recreation Club an opportunity to directly address expected benefits and problems of the project one last time. There were approximately five hours of debate.
The issue of whether or not to allow Swamp Hammock to go forward in an area where livestock are raised and the environment is sensitive has been going on for about a year.
The commissioners' task Tuesday was to make the final decision, amending the county's official zoning atlas to include a Planned Development District for the club's property, allowing owners to provide a venue for off-road vehicle racing and mud bogging, along with 42 other suggested activities.
A sign of the interest in Swamp Hammock was the size of the audience, which filled the commission chamber and spilled out into the lobby. Despite its size, the audience was generally respectful, although there were muted waves of sarcastic laughter from time to time. Only one individual jumped to his feet shouting.
Benefits for businesses and families
In general, proponents of Swamp Hammock focused on two points -- the economic benefit to the county and the need to provide a safe space for families, especially teenagers, to play in the outdoors.
For example, Melissa Cloud, a student at Avon Park High School, said, "There was nothing so exciting as the first time I went camping with my family. It was real quality family time. By adding the Swamp Hammock, families will have an inexpensive campground instead of having to go elsewhere."
Will Bennett, another supporter of the project, said, "We talk about how we grew up and how we're getting away from our core values. When I grew up (in Highlands County) we had a swamp buggy that was built in the '40s. I drove out in the pastures. I have a son and today I can't take him riding or camping."
Bennett added that research shows consumers spending on outdoor recreation is only passed by spending on medicines and motor vehicles and parts. The nation, he said, spends about $646 billion a year on outdoor recreation.
"This is a good project," Bennett said. "It's great for the kids and good for the county."
Problems and headaches for neighbors
Critics focused on the impact a motor sport venue would have on the surrounding environment and whether the local neighborhood roads leading to Swamp Hammock could sustain the added traffic.
Carl Cool, who had conducted an unofficial noise test at the request of his old friend Donald Skipper, said one of the problems was the shape of the Swamp Hammock property, which is long and narrow -- three miles by 3/4's of a mile. Even placing noisy events in the middle of the property would not stop the noise from traveling.
"The noise crosses to other properties," Cool said. "Going across the prairie, there's nothing to soak up the sound."
Cool said he measured the noise of a tractor and loud car. At 742 feet he registered 87 decibels; 84 at 861 feet. Sixty-five decibels is the typical daytime maximum in noise ordinances; 60 decibels at night.
As important, speakers representing the Audubon Society and Save Our Creeks said, was protecting the headwaters of the near-by Fish Eating Creek, the wet lands on the property and the migrating and local wild life traveling through the area.
Inconsistencies and details
Paula House and Bart Allen, both attorneys, although working for different parties opposed to Swamp Hammock, said the main problem with altering the zoning designation is that the county zoning atlas would no longer be consistent with the county's comprehensive plan, something that is mandated by the state.
Specific zoning problems were cited.
For example, critics say that proposed car and tractor shows, auto displays and sales are expressly prohibited in agriculture districts; a raceway or outdoor shooting range requires a special exemption in an Industrial 2 zone; and four of the proposed activities -- go-carting, lawn mower racing, a swimming beach and the sale of alcohol -- require Business 3 zoning.
"This is commercial activity and therefore not consistent with the comprehensive plan. It could be turned over at circuit court.
"The point," Allen added, "is this activity needs a better location."
There were sharp divisions regarding the traffic issue, with local residents refusing to believe the results of a traffic survey conducted by the Swamp Hammock owners.
The traffic engineer, employed by GMB Engineers and Planners, told the commission and audience that in order to not underestimate the traffic load, he tripled the number of peak hour vehicles, and increased background traffic by 50 percent.
He said that even with these increased numbers his study showed the roads and intersections would handle the flow easily.
Neighbors remained disbelieving and suspicious. The local roads, several people said, are narrow and winding. The last stretch is shell with no shoulders. Every immediate neighbor speaking Tuesday night predicted traffic jams, frustration and danger.
Commissioner James Brooks summed up the conflict. "It's about property rights," he said. "The right to do what you want on your own property and the right to the peace and quiet of agricultural land."
No vote was taken due to a technical legal matter, but Commissioner Ron Handley floated the idea of a temporary compromise, allowing Swamp Hammock a year's probation to see if the expected problems arise.
The matter will appear again before the commission on March 26 at 5 p.m.
Another Place (by: John C - 3/6/2013)
Why oh why oh why is Gabe White so stuck on making this happen in a quiet section of the county?! If you NEED to be king of a mud bog and show off your fancy, expensive truck, find a place where there are bigger roads and more businesses around. There are so many other properties more suited to this use, and not 30+ minutes from town out on the county line.
(by: Chad DuBose - 3/4/2013)
On a sidenote. Am I the only one that sees a very slight connection to a certain movie? Remember Footloose? The guy was against the town youth having fun and did everything to stop it........just sayin.....
(by: Chad DuBose - 3/4/2013)
I think it is an absolutely wonderful idea, and I hope all sides can reach an agreement that will make everyone happy. Our recreational areas in Highlands have been greatly reduced. This is an opportunity to have such a place in a controlled environment. Gabe, George, known you guys my whole life. "get er done"
Only in HC (by: young HC resident - 3/3/2013)
Can you imagine a town that supports youth and entertainment for the younger generations. Nope, not in highlands county. A great place to live, if you are over 65.
WHY DO PEOPLE HAVE TO BE CONSTANTLY REMINDED ? (by: GINGERLEEDREAD - 3/3/2013)
LAST I HEARD I LIVED IN A DEMOCRACY WHERE A PROPERTY OWNER HAD A RIGHT TO DO WITH WHAT HE OWNED HOW EVER HE SEEN FIT. NOT A SOCIALIZM WHERE EVERYONE AND ITS GOVERNMENT TOLD THE PROPERTY OWNER WHAT HE COULD DO WITH WHAT HE OWNED. ARE YOU AMERICANS WITH DEMOCRATIC FREEDOMS OR SOCIALISTS ? YOU CANT BE BOTH. IF THE OTHER PROPERTY OWNERS DONT LIKE WHAT THE OTHER IS DOING THEY HAVE OPTIONS, BUILD A FENCE OR BUY OUT THE OWNERS. WHEN YOU INVOLVE THE GOVERNMENT AND GIVE THEM THE POWER OVER YOURS WE ALL BECOME LOSERS OF FREEDOM PERIOD. DESIGNATIONS OF ZONINGS ARE CHANGED DAILY ON THE WHIM OF WHOM EVER. LET INDIVIDUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS RULE FOR ALL EQUALLY!
no to this (by: AP Residents - 3/3/2013)
One more reason I'm glad I didn't vote for Bennett for the county commission.
Good Idea (by: Rick H - 3/3/2013)
It is very rare that an economic opportunity of this magnitude comes to Highlands County. The landowners surrounding the airport and racetrack had the same misgivings at first as these neighbors have but they either got over their objections or sold out at enormously inflated land values (thanks to their new neighbors).
Ron Handley (by: Think! - 3/2/2013)
These Swamp Hammock people have a lot of money and they wanna make more! Mr. Handley should be careful what ideas he floats to the commission, perhaps he should abstain from voting on the Swamp Hammock issue because of a conflict of interest. Just think about it... Mr. Handley is an active builder, currently supplementing his income by serving as a County Commissioner. If Zoning is changed and Swamp Hammock is a go they will be investing money building all kinds of things using who as the contractor? Either abstain from ever doing business with Kennedy, White, or the property owners or declare a conflict of interest an do not cast a vote on this issue Mr. Handley.
Bad Idea (by: Lash Larue - 3/2/2013)
This land use change will negatively impact the adjacent property owner’s rights to have new development around them be compatible with the surrounding land uses. To preserve the open space characteristics of their rural area. To only have primarily agricultural activities or low density rural development around them as called for in the land development regulations. So why does the commissioners feel that the new land use is acceptable. Shouldn’t the standards be the same for all and not favor the new property owner.
Curious (by: MeNotYou - 3/1/2013)
Can a suit be brought against the county for declining property values due to this project?
Carl Cool (by: Comically Disgusted - 3/1/2013)
To correct, Carl Cool is an engineer and this was a Certified test using only a tractor and a small hot rod. A copy of his findings was given to each of the commissioners. Can you imaging the noise levels with a couple of hundred ATV's and several racing vehicles, some without mufflers?
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