LEESBURG -- When the Lee County Commission voted at its Oct. 27 business meeting to approve construction of a state Department of Natural Resources-funded boat ramp on U.S. 19 despite the protests of a group of citizens in the area, the matter appeared all but settled.
But an official with the DNR said this week the county will have an opportunity to provide input before the structure is actually built.
"First of all, we want to develop (the boat ramp) in a way that makes everyone happy," Ted Will, the DNR's Region 4 supervisor, said. "We will design it to meet the needs of the community."
At question among many in the community is the location of the ramp. The proposed site adjacent to the bridge across the Kinchafoonee Creek near the Lee-Dougherty line is generally considered the most viable location for the ramp. That site, however, has drawn the protests of nearby citizens and the concerns of Lee law enforcement.
"You can't really look to the future and determine what's going to happen, but I think the main issue here is where they put access to the ramp," Lee County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Lewis Harris said. "I've heard some folks say they were planning to put the access near Ledo Road at the Ford place. If that's the case, it shouldn't cause a lot of concern.
"But if access is beside the bridge, I think you're definitely talking about a potential traffic hazard. There's a whole lot more traffic in that area now than there was even a few years ago, and with the development of the Publix shopping center and other shopping outlets along that gateway, it's definitely going to be busier."
County Commissioner Betty Johnson pointed out at the commission's Oct. 27 meeting that statistics compiled by Harris showed a dramatic increase in traffic accidents near the proposed site of the boat ramp.
"In 2007, there were 39 accidents from Cedric Avenue to the Dougherty County line (a distance of about two miles on U.S. 19)," Johnson said. "In 2008, there were 37. So far this year, there have been 54. The more traffic we have in that area, the more wrecks we're going to have."
That, according to a group of concerned residents in the Canuga neighborhood whose entrance is near the bridge, is one of several areas of concern that led them to oppose the landing.
"I know there were two members of the board (Johnson and Chairman Ed Duffy) against the boat ramp being placed near the bridge, but the others seemed dead set on having it there," said Don Windham, who served as a spokesman against the ramp at the commission meeting. "They tried to say that it was going to bring prosperity to the county, but I don't know where they got that.
"The traffic out there is so bad now, it's like trying to get onto I-75 from a dead standstill. It's only going to get worse if there's boat traffic added to the mix."
While the debate rages on in the county about the possible ramp site, Will said there's no need to grow overly concerned for the next 18 months to two years.
"We have a three-person crew that builds all the boat ramps in the state," said the DNR supervisor, whose Region 4 duty includes oversite of the boat ramp crew. "Right now, they have 10 sites that they're scheduled to work on while we go through the permitting, the ecological and the archeological processes with the Lee County ramp.
"Once we get the site approved, we have to go through a grant process to secure the funding. It's generally a two- to three-year period before construction actually starts. And it's at least one and a half to two years down the road before we actually start working with the county on specifics of the project."
Will said the state DNR-maintained boat ramps generally consist of a 20-
foot concrete slab that is poured at the site and then pushed into place at a previously cleared bottom elevation of five feet. The state does not build restroom facilities or other amenities.
"We generally include the boat ramp and parking at these sites," he said. "We don't put in concrete or asphalt parking areas; usually it's just loose aggregate. General upkeep is handled by the county, and we share enforcement of any applicable laws at the sites with the counties."
Harris, who noted that recent accidents at the proposed ramp site include a fatality, said he hopes the county will work with the DNR to come up with a plan that is safest for the community.
"One of the biggest problems we face is that everyone is in such a rush to get from point A to point B," he said. "It's sad, but that's the way it is now; we're all guilty of it. I think with the development on this corridor and the increased traffic, if a boat ramp is put in there at the bridge, Sheriff (Reggie) Rachals will have to schedule more patrols in that area."