Corps to allow improvements at Lock 7; Okeechobee County to fight vandals with gates, more security

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OKEECHOBEE — In 2017, Okeechobee County commissioners approved a conceptual plan to develop the Lock 7 area (since then renamed the Clif Betts Jr. Lakeside Recreation Area) to expand public recreational facilities. Three years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to the requested amendment to the easement.

Of note: Three years is not a long time from the corps’ point of view — in the world of the federal bureaucracy, three years is sometimes called the “fast track.”

At the Oct. 8 county commission meeting, Okeechobee County Capital Projects Director Donnie Oden said the corps amended the consent to easement for most of the conceptual plan — with the exception of the amphitheater. “I think they didn’t like the way it was positioned,” explained Oden, “We had it set back into the dike. He said they could redesign the amphitheater idea and resubmit it to the corps.

This was just a conceptual plan, he added. The county will have to seek corps’ approval for construction once projects are designed.

In addition to the amphitheater, the plan includes an observation platform, trees, pavilions, more lights, a playground, a canoe and kayak launching area and more paved parking in the public use area of about 30 acres.

Commissioner Brad Goodbread said the plans look great, but “we can’t do this out of our budget.” He suggested Parks and Recreation Director Denise Whitehead look for grant opportunities.

“If we got it done, it would be monumental,” said Goodbread. “The quicker we get the ball rolling, the quicker we get a really nice place for our citizens to go.”

Whitehead said the corps’ easement opens up some opportunities for the county. She said they may be able to move forward with grant applications next year for this site.

In other business, county officials vowed to do more to protect the facilities already in the Lock 7 area. The bathrooms and paved parking areas continue to be a target for vandals.

Commissioner David Hazellief suggested the county install gates that can be put on timers to automatically open and close.

“I we close that at a reasonable time, the less time people would have to go down there and destroy things,” he said.

Commissioners seemed in consensus about the gates, and also agreed on plans to beef up security with real-time video feeds to law enforcement and Parks and Recreation Department officials.

Oden showed commissioners security camera images of several young men who sprayed painted graffiti inside the Lock 7 men’s room over the weekend. He said the images clearly show the face of at least one of the vandals. The security footage has been turned over to the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office.

He said it took about four hours for county maintenance staff to pressure-wash the walls and scrub the spray paint from the restroom fixtures.

In addition to the graffiti, the vandals also deface and damage the parking areas, he said.

“They sit out there and they drink all night long. They throw their bottles and break them in the parking lot. There is glass all over there,” he aid. “It’s just an accident waiting to happen.

“Every time we turn around, there are skid marks all over the parking lot,” Oden said. “This place was put together for people to enjoy, not for people to vandalize.”

Chairman Terry Burroughs said the county should press charges against the vandals. “If a few of them have felonies, maybe it will wake some of them up,” he said.

Goodbread said he is committed for the county to invest whatever it takes for security to protect the recreation area from vandalism and keep it safe for the community.

“I believe closing the gate will be a major source of prevention,” said Hazelleif. “If they tear it up, we will have to prosecute them.”

Oden agreed. “We just shut down the soccer fields and started gating it off because they were spinning donuts in the soccer fields,” he explained.

“W have to prosecute the vandals,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper. He said in the past they had one person identified on a security image but the county did not prosecute.

“We do need real-time cameras to catch these people and prosecute them,” said Burroughs. “This is ridiculous.”

He said “slapping their hands and telling them not to do it again” is not working.

Burroughs said some people who like to fish will complain if access to the pier is closed at night, but “there are plenty of places for people to go to fish. This lake is huge.”

He said they can put wireless communication where they need it.

“I am for whatever it takes to stop this,” said Goodbread. “Less than 1% of the population is messing things up for everybody.”

Culpepper said the vandalism is costing the county taxpayers a lot of money because so much staff time is spent cleaning up the messes they make. “We’ve got to do something because this is not acceptable,” he said.

Whitehead said they have a meeting set up with a gate contractor for automatic gates for other areas and can include the Clif Betts Jr. Lakeside Recreation Area in that discussion.

“I am tired of the vandalism,” said Burroughs. “We are going to stop this vandalism, wherever it is. It is ridiculous for us to spend money over and over.”

He said they will put in cameras in with wireless connectivity.

“We are going to have video all over the place,” he said. “We are going to find out who these people are and we are going to prosecute.”

Whtehead said the fencing added at the soccer fields did result in some parking issues over the weekend. “We had a small group of very vocal citizens upset about the parking,” she said. “Before I left that day, I had a plan in place.”

She said the heavy rainfall that saturated the ground has also complicated parking, but county staff is working on a better plan for this weekend.

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