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County, FEMA move on housing at Veterans Park
The Star - 1/25/2019
Jan. 24--The governor got a sneak peek.
A couple of hours before the Board of County Commissioners last week unanimously approved moving ahead with placing FEMA emergency housing at Veterans Memorial Park at Beacon Hill, newly-elected Gov. Ron DeSantis paid a visit to the site.
Part of a tour of areas impacted by Hurricane Michael and the progress of recovery, county and FEMA officials gave DeSantis a tour of the proposed site for trailers or RVs for displaced residents.
They were joined by a couple of dozen neighbors of the park who questioned the governor and county officials about the site and future plans.
The questions continued during a special meeting two hours later during which the BOCC formally adopted the FEMA plan and voted to move ahead on requisite paperwork.
The 2.94 acres for the housing, of the park's 40 or so acres, are located in the back of the park, near an existing tree line.
The current proposal is for 62 sites for trailers or RVs, with FEMA constructing the pads and installing all utilities.
FEMA officials said due to the extent that wetlands dominated the county, the Veterans Park site was the best and quickest way to bring badly-needed emergency housing to the county.
Disposing of one rumor while the governor was on the site, a FEMA official said the housing was only for displaced residents, not for workers in the area as part of the recovery effort.
While it is possible that some residents of Bay County, specifically Mexico Beach, may be located at the park, the housing will be occupied by Gulf County residents.
Fencing will be placed around the site and a vegetative barrier will be part of the landscaping to provide as much separation from the main park as possible.
There will also be wetlands setbacks.
"We are doing everything we can to make it aesthetically pleasing and not impact the park of community as best we can," said County Assistant Administrator Warren Yeager.
Once all the paperwork on a lease agreement between FEMA and the county is formalized, construction would take about 45 days, FEMA officials indicated.
During the special meeting, held before a near standing-room-only audience, neighbors of the park expressed concerns about traffic, noise, lights and safety.
Several wondered if there would be a constant police presence.
But, by far, the most significant issue for residents was what would happen when FEMA leaves.
The goal, a FEMA official said, is to have everybody out of emergency housing and into permanent housing by April 2020.
Once everybody has left, FEMA provided the option of returning the park site to its original state or leaving behind all infrastructure for the county.
Residents wanted assurances, even in writing contained in any lease document that the park will return to its current state once the housing mission is completed.
"I don't think anybody here doesn't want to help people," said resident Randall Copeland. "All we ask you is something in writing that says this will be returned to its natural intent."
And that intent, several residents noted, extended beyond a park and green space to the park's demarcation as a tribute to the county's veterans.
"I want to see Veterans Park go back to what it was intended to be and not become Beacon Hill RV Park," said resident Deborah Mayes.
Brian Cahill is a member of the board currently fundraising for construction of an Honor Walk, with large, distinctive flags honoring the branches of the military, along the bluff at Veterans Park.
George Duren, another member of the committee, was present for the governor's visit with a sign and photo of the proposed Honor Walk.
Cahill noted the county commissioners approved the Honor Walk concept, and spending bed tax dollars, to make the walk a showcase for Gulf County.
"I don't think it would be true if it became an RV park," Cahill said.
During the governor's visit, County Administrator Michael Hammond said the final decision on what happens to site will rest with commissioners.
Commissioners emphasized that they were simply making the decision to move ahead on the plan last week.
"There is no perfect solution," said Commissioner Phil McCroan. "We have people who have nowhere to live.
"We have to take that into account."
Commissioner Sandy Quinn, Jr., expressed dismay with the animosity in emails and phone calls from residents about the issue, especially the characterization, though not made publicly, that the county was establishing a "refugee camp."
He said the board had to do something.
"I'm in the business of finding people a place to live," Quinn said.
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