Harry Harris Park is located in Tavernier. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

A county park in Tavernier reached capacity and closed for a time on Valentine’s Day, and it didn’t sit well with those trying to gain entry and nearby residents complaining of the issues that they say arised from it. 

A few calls were made to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office on Feb. 14, with the first at 4:40 p.m. from a local resident who showed up to Harry Harris Park only to find that it was closed due to full capacity. According to call records, he was upset the gate was closed and heard that the attendant would call the police on anyone trying to get in. 

Another call came in roughly 20 minutes later from another person complaining that park goers weren’t treating the park attendant well. People who were denied entry were rude and used foul language, the attendant told the deputy who responded. Some jumped the fence to gain entry, the attendant confirmed to the deputy.

One call came in to the sheriff’s office around 7 p.m. from a woman who inquired about law enforcement response at the park. Another call around the same hour came in from a man who was locked inside the park. 

No arrests were made from the calls made. 

Frustration surrounding the park boiled over so much that it drew the Tavernier Community Association to craft a letter to county commissioners in the lead-up to its Feb. 17 meeting. The TCA said the situation as witnessed on Valentine’s Day isn’t new, but rather a recurring issue with a lack of adequate management by the county. 

“Tavernier Community Association repeatedly asked our former commissioner for assistance with no action,” the letter reads. “We once again ask the county to step up and accept the responsibilities of management of the county’s crown jewel in the park system.”

The letter called for adjusting work schedules to make sure no county employee is working alone under duress from overcapacity crowds, as well as the creation of a parks and recreation department and the hiring of a director.

County Commissioner Mike Forster placed the hiring of a parks and recreation director on the agenda for the Feb. 17 meeting. He also wants to see park attendants who have code enforcement abilities.

“Public Works are running parks in Monroe County, and the fact is it’s not running very well,” he said. 

Forster said he’s planning to hold a virtual town hall via Zoom with residents on Monday, March 1 at 5:30 p.m.

“We can’t accept the status quo any more,” he said. 

Sheriff Rick Ramsay said he recommended various measures to improve the issues at the park in discussion with Monroe County Mayor Michelle Coldiron. They included a sign indicating the park’s full capacity and closure before people reach the park; a camera at the front of the gate; having two attendants during busy weekends; and fencing that angles at the top to prevent people from scaling over, among other things. 

“There are things that can be done. We made good recommendations to the county,” Ramsay said. “They (the county commission) decide what to do.”

Ramsay added that he doesn’t believe Valentine’s Day at Harry Harris Park got out of control to the point where there were riots and chaos. He said deputies spoke with the attendant, who said there were people being rude and using foul language. The sheriff said the attendant wasn’t spit on, as some indicated. 

Some 250 calls for service were made to Harry Harris Park in 2020, and Ramsay said most of those were self-generated by deputies. 

“Three-quarters of the calls were by deputies doing proactive policing,” he said. “Deputies do extra patrols. They’ll call out watch orders.

“We don’t see a violent pattern and out-of-control behavior at the park with thugs and drug dealers,” he continued.  “Yes, a couple of people did jump the fence and a couple people pushed through the front gate. That happens everywhere. None are crimes.”

The TCA’s letter concludes by stating that the situation at Harry Harris Park on Feb. 14 was avoidable. 

“It is now an issue that can no longer be avoided,” the letter reads. “We have moved closer to a situation of injury, under the current management practices, and it is time to change management practices.”

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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.