County and Key Deer Refuge Projects on Tap in Big Pine Key in 2017

Monroe County has a handful of projects on tap for the Big Pine Key area in 2017. They include, among others, sea level rise prevention work that’s one of a two-part pilot program in the Florida Keys, a revamp of a popular swimming hole and some more smaller jobs like installing a kayak launch in a neighborhood park.

The sea level rise work is known officially as the Tidal Flooding Roads Demonstration Project. The recipient for it, if approved this month, will be The Avenues and Father Tony Way on Big Pine. A design phase would follow this approval. “It’s an effort to help combat our high tidal flooding issues,” Monroe County Assistant Administrator Kevin Wilson told the Free Press last week. The work mainly includes the elevation of roads and setting a standard for such work for future projects. The Monroe County Commission is expected to give the go-ahead to the work at its Jan. 18 meeting. Similar work, also part of the project, is planned for three Key Largo roads as well.

Big Pine Key Swimming Hole

Plans for the Big Pine swimming hole call for an overlook pavilion, walking dock and kayak
launch, among other new amenities, at the popular hangout near the Pine Channel Bridge.

Aside from that project, Wilson highlighted the previously-approved future work of the Big Pine Key Swimming Hole and a possible kayak launch — if the county can find funds — at Palm Villa Park. For the former, the swimming hole, a 1-acre area just south of the Pine Channel Bridge on U.S. 1, will include a boardwalk with overlook tower, pavilion, rental facility, kayak launch, swimming dock, picnic area, trails, information kiosk and 18-spot parking area, among other amenities. The project will take six to eight months and is currently in the permitting phase with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

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One of the main projects in 2017 for the Big Pine Key National Key Deer Refuge will be construction of its new visitor’s center, according to its public relation representative. “That’s definitely the big presser for us this year,” Kristie Killam said. The new L-shaped visitor’s center will cost roughly $300,000, span 1,840 square feet and include 26,400 square feet of parking space — roughly 30 to 35 spots — on 1 acre of U.S. 1 frontage. It will be located at 30587 Overseas Highway. The refuge currently welcomes visitors at a storefront next to Winn-Dixie off of Key Deer Boulevard. The new building’s interior will be divided between an initial contact station, a Friends and Volunteers of Refuges gift shop, and office space. A standalone restroom facility will be located on the property, which was once the site of a feed store before a land swap agreement with the previous owner in 2008. It has sat vacant since then. To be included with the construction is a short, interpretive trail and a greenhouse for growing native plants on an abutting 2-acre parcel that the complex also owns. Killam said the new visitor’s center would be completed this year, but when it can start accepting visitors is unknown at this time.

Big Pine Key DeerAside from that project, the refuge will continue to monitor the Key deer population as it relates to the New World screwworm outbreak that ravaged the species beginning in July. The latest report shows that 133 — 123 males and 10 females — have perished from the flesh-eating parasite. However, only one deer has died since late November. “We will continue to keep an eye on that, especially how it will impact the does and fawns,” Killiam said. Birthing season for Key deer is typically late April through the summer months, Killam said. Screwworm larvae like to burrow into open sores, which has refuge officials concerned about possible entry points for the parasite in the umbilical area of deer during the birthing process. The estimated Key deer population is roughly 875, according to a recently-completed report.

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Lastly, the refuge will host the Big Pine Key Outdoor Fest from March 11 to 18. In its second year, the event is put on by the Friends and Volunteers of Refuges group and allows attendees to get up close and personal with the federal preservation areas through multiple planned excursions. “There will be dozens of hiking and biking opportunities as well as kid and adult activities,” Killam said.

bbowden@keysnews. com

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