Forster looks to revisit parks and rec director position

Harry Harris Park entrance. KEYS WEEKLY FILE PHOTO

Homeowners in one Tavernier community appear to be in agreement with their county commissioner on issues witnessed at a local park and solutions to calm the chaos.

Frustrations and concerns peaked at Harry Harris Park on Valentine’s Day when several calls were made to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. Complaints filed in as the park reached full capacity, which angered a local resident who was denied entry. Nearby homeowners also called the sheriff’s office over park-goers berating the attendant. 

Events that unfolded on Feb. 17 not only led the Tavernier Community Association to craft a letter urging action by the board of county commissioners, but it also drew county commissioner Mike Forster to hold a virtual town hall meeting on March 1. The first-time commissioner made it known that parks in Monroe County needed attention and dollars during the campaign trail. He followed up on that promise by diving in on the issues surrounding Harry Harris and other county parks. 

“I think we need to up our game on the parks,” Forster said in his introductory statements. 

Mike Forster

Forster added that the county is “missing the ball” on cost recovery when visitors enter parks. Not only did he acknowledge the need for park fees from non-county residents and boaters during weekends and holidays, but he also believes the hiring of a parks and recreation director is essential for parks like Harry Harris. An agenda item is expected to come before the board of county commissioners during the March 17 meeting to revisit the parks and rec director position. 

“We need to make sure we’re able to do improvements without burdening the taxpayers of Monroe County when others are using it — and in some cases degrading it,” he said. “A similar park charges $20 each way to bring a boat in and out.”

Around 35 people joined Forster’s virtual town hall. Several speakers expressed concerns on overcrowding and sided with Forster on his proposals. Scott Papp, who spoke on behalf of the Tavernier Community Association, said they’re 100% behind Forster on the need for a parks and rec director. Papp said the current care of the parks is “scatter shot” that needs a gentle but firm hand at the top. 

“Most counties in South Florida have an individual parks and rec department, some of which do an amazing job,” he said. 

In his statements, Papp said Harry Harris turns into a parking lot on busy weekends between all the trucks and trailers filing in. When he first moved into the park, he said only 20 trailers and boats were allowed. But sometime last year, he said that number tripled with parking opening up on the street and the grassy area adjacent to the baseball fields. 

“It went from 20 to 40 and 60 boats and trailers at the park. That was way over use,” he said. 

Papp also acknowledged the TCA’s agreement with Forster on fees for cost recovery, although he said most people think fees for out-of-county residents should be seven days a week and not just holidays and weekends. The association also believes citations should be issued for illegally parked cars. Forster said he’d like to see either a public works employee or a park attendant with code enforcement capabilities to write tickets. 

“If they had code enforcement, then you don’t need to take MCSO away from the road,” he said. 

Resident Lauren Hoefert-Dunn said she’d like to see the park restored to what it used to be. The creator of the Harry Harris Families Group, she said it’s provided not only those in the neighborhood a way to stay in touch, but it’s also allowed for transparency and communication within the community. 

“I like that we now have a force and you to advocate for us,” she told Forster.

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Jim McCarthy is a northerner who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since his graduation from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3 years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. Behind every community is resiliency and resolve in difficult times. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim serves as President of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. “It’s a group that lives by the motto ‘Service Above Self,’” he says. “We’ve done service projects at the Tavernier nursing home, sitting down and socializing with residents. “We’ve also supplied cameras to young students exploring the Keys ecosystem.” Jim loves sports, family and time exploring underneath the water depths.