COLUMBIA COUNTY – A popular no-fee recreational spot for locals seeking to cool off has been closed since September 2019, but when it reopens there may be a cost. Rum Island is a small spring-fed park on the Santa Fe River, and while it is a popular spot for swimming and launching canoes and kayaks, it is also one of the lesser known parks on the river. This mile of riverfront, encompassing 44 acres was given to Columbia County on Aug. 19, 1965 by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Legend has it that the Rum Island name came from the local moonshine and bootlegging operations on the island in the early 1900s.
The park has always been free to use and includes a small parking lot, boardwalks leading to the spring and a boat ramp where canoe outfitters drop customers off for a paddle down the river. Located at the southern end of the county, it offers free access to the Santa Fe River and accommodates paddling by canoe or kayak, swimming, picnicking and fishing.
Since September 2019, the park has been closed for environmental renovations, repairs to the wooden boardwalks and construction of permanent restrooms. Columbia County received two $150,000 grants, one from the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) and the other from the State’s 2019 legislative appropriations.
The legislative appropriations funding was used to construct the permanent restroom facility at the park with separate men’s and women’s restroom with an entry sidewalk for park visitors. The building was designed so that during periods of high-water events, the water could pass through the building. The permanent restroom will replace the porta-lets that have been used in the past
SRWMD grant funds made possible the park’s river bank restoration, as well as funding a portion of the drain field and septic tank work associated with adding a permanent restroom facility to the park. According to SRWMD senior project manager Kristine Eskelin, years of use by visitors and effects of flooding had degraded the river bank, which led to dredging the bank and area around the spring head, putting much of the material on the bank and then covering it with fabric to help hold the bank in place. Sod grass will be planted over it to further stabilize it.
But the restorations and construction are not the only changes to the park. When Rum Island Park reopens, Columbia County officials are considering charging admission and implementing several new fees and rules. According to Columbia County Manager Ben Scott, county officials are considering a plan that would allow Columbia County residents to purchase an annual park pass at a reduced price of $25 compared to an annual pass to out-of-county residents. Senior citizens over 65 years old and veterans could receive the pass at no charge.
The county is also proposing a $5 per vehicle fee for all visitors, with the money placed in an “honor box” at the park. A temporary decal provided would have to be displayed in the vehicle’s windshield or the vehicle could be towed at the owner’s expense. Also, under consideration is banning parking along the entrance road outside the park gate with vehicles subject to towing.
“We’re also setting hours that the park will be opened and closed,” Scott said of the plan. The consensus that county officials reached during a workshop is that the park will be opened from sunrise to sunset. Scott said the proceeds collected from the proposed fees will be used to clean and maintain the park. The Columbia County Commission said that the fee would also serve to limit the number of people at the park. Since parking will no longer be allowed along the entrance roadway there is only a limited number of cars that can come in.
Outfitters or commercial enterprises would be required to purchase a $1,500 annul permit. That amount is higher than other parks or the state park system charges outfitters, which may lead some outfitters to stop using the boat ramp due to cost. This could result in heavier vehicle traffic as outfitters transport multiple people at a time. The board also plans to review a proposal to allocate 20-25 annual passes to the Friends of Rum Island organization, a park support group, whose volunteers periodically clean and maintain areas of the park.
While Columbia County is recommending these changes, there has been opposition from some county residents who maintain they already pay for using the park through taxes. There is also opposition from outfitters about the fee and possible limitations on the number of trips allowed per day.
County officials are not expected to vote on or adopt the new fees and rules until the Board’s first meeting in August. Currently there is no firm date on reopening due to the riverbank sodding. The original projection was for late August or early September.
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