Nature: Paradise lost or saved? City eyes park project

The proposed park site has a wonderful view of the LaBelle Bridge to the west. Caloosa Belle/Patty Brant

By Patty Brant

The real Florida is shrinking rapidly. With stores, condominiums and golf courses spreading inland, the Florida of the Everglades and creatures of all descriptions is fading.

Conversely, interest in Old Florida is still high. Even those who choose to live in condominiums want to be able to experience a slice of Florida as it provided the aboriginal Indians with sustenance, as Ponce De Leon saw it; as white settlers experienced it n as nature made it.

The City of LaBelle has the opportunity to reestablish and preserve a 176-acre site on the north side of the Caloosahatchee River as parkland evocative of “Old Florida.”

Since 1991, the city has held a 50-year lease on the property, which is owned by the South Florida Water Management District. According to the terms of the lease, it must be used for recreational purposes or it will revert to the District. At that point, it would most likely be sold and become the site of more private homes. Homesites are already being sold on the adjacent property on the east side.

The city commissioners, particularly Paul Puletti and Bob Miller, are very interested in holding on to this property. They are especially interested in using it for various types of passive recreation n kayaking, hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, picnicking n the list would certainly go on.

Margaret England, one of LaBelle’s foremost environmentalists, is very excited about the prospect of creating a park there. Standing on the property, she can visualize it as a natural treasure. The city has other parks n Barron Park, The Nature Park on Fraser Ave., Sports Park off Cowboy Way and so on but, she says, “who says LaBelle can’t be the City of Parks?” Recreation is one of the amenities everybody looks for at any location.

Make no mistake: it will take a lot of work to shape the property into this vision of pristine Old Florida. The property is overgrown. Native plants will have to be scaled back in places; exotics must be eradicated. The end result, however, would be a treasure for everyone, Ms. England feels, longtime dweller and newcomer; resident and visitor.

The property is actually all spoil bank, left over from the last time the river was dredged. It is located west of Riverbend Estates and is actually in Glades County.

The area encompasses several distinct environmental areas, with oak hammocks, water hickory and cabbage palms; ferns, sawgrass, flame vine, lantana, pepper grass and grapevines. The trees and the sky are home to Carolina warblers and red belly woodpeckers. It is used by migratory birds, eagles, swallow-tailed kites, and other local birds.

If the property is to become a public trust for Old Florida nature, the city will have to act quickly to come up with a plan and find funding. It will not be a short process.

A coalition of groups is interested in being part of a workshop for passive day use canoeing, hiking and ecotourism. The City has an easement for ingress and egress. Commissioner and Mayor-elect Paul Puletti has said he welcomes any assistance in trying to create a city park there and wants to get the neighboring residents of Riverbend Estates onboard with the project.

The city will be setting a workshop schedule to begin the project in earnest.