Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Keep the Barr Open!

It's hard to believe, but once again the people of Alachua County are doing battle with a small group of homeowners who are trying to limit access to public preserved lands. Last time it was an individual trying to buy part of a city nature park. This time it is a group of homeowners whose property borders a half mile section of the Levy Loop Trail at Barr Hammock Preserve. They claim that the noise of hikers on the trail disturbs them and that increased foot traffic so near their homes is a security danger. They are complaining about cameras aimed at their homes, loose dogs on their property and increased bear sightings, among other things. As a solution, these homeowners have proposed that the half mile of the loop trail that borders their yards be closed to the public. County land managers have tried to work with them, posting signs that ask visitors to be quiet for half a mile on the loop, and offering to plant vegetation that would create a privacy screen. But the homeowners want to have their views of the natural area, and they want to be alone while they view it.
Public Support, Public Funding, Public Land
The property was acquired between 2006 and 2010 by Alachua County using conservation funds from many agencies dedicated to purchasing, restoring and preserving environmentally significant land. Originally a wetlands, the prairie had been drained and used for many years for cattle grazing. It took several years after the purchase to restore the wetlands--to fill in canals that drained the marsh, build the levee trails to hold the water in and install water pipes to control the water levels during seasonal flooding. The community was very excited about this new trail that would loop around the marsh. Barr Hammock Preserve opened to the public in February of 2013. At the ribbon cutting, there was a large crowd of enthusiastic nature lovers of all ages and types. There were local politicians, birders, runners, bikers, conservationists and just people who appreciate beautiful places. After the introductions, histories and dedication, there were hikes and hay rides led by naturalists and it was a wonderful day. Barr Hammock quickly became a popular spot for nature lovers all over the county.
Educational Bike Rack

Florida Watersnake

Water Moccassin

History of the Property

You can see the Loop Trail on the Lower Left

Watch for snakes, no dogs, protect the cranes and be careful!
I am one of those nature lovers and I've been on the trail probably 10 times over the past year and a half. I walked the entire 6 1/2 mile loop the day of the ribbon cutting, but for most of my visits, I walk a mile or so out on one side, then walk back, and then walk a mile or so and back on the other side. That way I can experience a little of the open, sunny walk on the north, as well as some of the shady, swampy side on the south. My experience is that the north side tends to have lots of birds, bugs and flowers, while the shady south side is where I've seen snakes and otters.
Beginning the Sunny Walk Along North Levee

Looking Back from the North, Over the Prairie


Sandhill Cranes

Great Egret

Dewy Spiderweb

Coyote Scat

Burmarigold (Bidens laevis)

Beggars Ticks (Bidens mitis)

Big Flock of Pigeons

Bladderwort (Ultricularia inflata)

Swamp Sparrow



Then you go back and try the other side

Walking on the South Levee

Orbweaver Spider and bugs

Phaon Crescent Butterfly

Shady Swamp

So here's the problem. This is a 6 1/2 mile loop trail and the homeowners who live near the beginning of the loop would like to turn this into a one way trail and not allow visitors to pass in front of their homes. This means that anyone who wants to walk to the north side, with its vast horizons and marshes for birds will need to walk 6 miles in and 6 miles back. This just isn't fair. It restricts access for all but those who have the ability to go so far. In the summer, especially, 12 miles will be daunting. There are no bathrooms or drinking fountains. Essentially, these homeowners would close most of the trail just by making it too hard to get to. They want to enjoy the fruits of a beautiful wet prairie restoration (remember that just a few years ago it was dry cattle grazing ground), paid for by public funds, all by themselves.
Six Miles Either Way
One funny thing about the noise complaint--the trailhead is right next to I-75. It is so loud there that when my hiking buddy drove in today, I was taking photos and couldn't even hear her car come in. The traffic is very loud up to about the first half mile on either side of the loop. Only after you turn away from the road does it start to quiet down. It just seems like a stretch to say that the voices of the birders, bikers, hikers and families are more disturbing than the interstate. And there usually are very few people out using the trail, anyway. My friends and I are usually alone when we hike during the week. Weekends may be different, but it's just hard to imagine it's that bad.
Entrance Right Next to I-75

Quiet Parking Lot
I can sympathize to a small degree with the homeowners. It probably feels intrusive to have someone with binoculars aimed toward your house, even if the person is looking for birds. The same goes for cameras with big lenses. And people outside enjoying themselves can be loud. Some people might bring dogs, even though it is not allowed. And there are just jerks everywhere who yell, litter, and do stupid, rude things. And if these homeowners did live in the houses before the trail opened, they got used to their privacy, with their vistas looking out over the grazing land. But now the land has been restored and is gorgeous and they still want their privacy. You just can't have it both ways. They just have to share. It's public land and you can't make it private for just a few. But the public has to be respectful and polite. People with cameras and binoculars can remember that there are homes behind those bushes, and everyone should keep their voices down in the early morning hours. You see more wildlife that way, anyway! We can find a way to get along and play well together.
Mutual Respect is the Only Way
This is late notice, but there is an Alachua County Commission meeting tonight to address this issue. Come to the meeting and show your support for public lands. 5pm. Alachua County Administration Building, 12 SE 1st Street, Room 209. Keep the Barr Open.

Update after the Commission meeting: The Commissioners decided to keep the entire trail open after the homeowners withdrew their request to close the half mile, which is a good thing. And then in order to ease the concerns of the homeowners, they voted to ask the land management staff to do further evaluation about how to discourage visitors from taking the North Levee and add some more interpretive signs. I won't go into the meeting. It was, as a friend put it, like watching the sausage being made, and I'm a little queazy over it still. Local government is not a pretty thing. But I think the public was mostly served in the end and our trail is open. Go enjoy.

One thing I learned at the meeting that I hadn't fully appreciated before was that this is just the first phase of a much larger project. In the near future there will be more trails to the south, with more options such as horse trails and better bike trails. And there will be another entrance, which should take some of the pressure off of these homeowners.

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