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Commission approves ‘cleaned-up’ campground

Bryan Rhoden left the Baker County Commission meeting this week a happy man in stark contrast to the disappointment he felt five years ago when commissioners flatly denied his request to rezone land on the St. Mary’s River for a waterfront campground and picnic area off Steel Bridge Road.

This time, the board unanimously approved his rezoning request after 10 people lauded Mr. Rhoden for the hard work he has put into his property to keep it a “clean, safe place for families to go for fun and recreation.”

“I’m impressed,” Commission Chairman Gordon Crews told Mr. Rhoden after listening to the glowing endorsements. “Your support speaks volumes. No one spoke against it.”

The commission’s decision on the evening of October 15 rezones a 6.85-acre parcel from residential to recreation resource — the same zoning that applies to a small county park and boat ramp immediately west of Mr. Rhoden’s property, which he calls St. Mary’s Cove Landing.

The county’s comprehensive plan, which designates future land use, also will be changed to reflect the new recreation status of the property, which lies immediately west of St. Mary’s Cove subdivision.

The action was recommended by the county’s planning and zoning staff, development review committee and the Baker County Land Planning Agency, a citizens advisory panel that conducted its own public hearing on the matter on September 27, during which two nearby homeowners said they didn’t want camping on the riverfront because of the potential for noise and other problems associated with people drinking alcohol at all hours of the day and night.

But all commissioners heard this week were positive comments about Mr. Rhoden  cleaning up the property and his commitment to creating and maintaining a wholesome, family recreational environment.

James Joiner said he and his 5-year-old son have been regular visitors to Mr. Rhoden’s property for three years, often traveling from their home in Sanderson to spend a day there along the river.

“I’ve never seen any trouble there,” Mr. Joiner said. “It’s a wonderful place for families to go. I can’t wait to camp there.”

While there have been problems in the past with trash, littering, broken bottles and people drinking and creating a disturbance in the area, most people who spoke this week told commissioners Mr. Rhoden has helped improve conditions there by establishing rules of conduct for people visiting his property, including those who go there during the summer to swim in the river.

“It’s a beautiful place,” said Renee Jesseman, who lives on Steel Bridge Road. “Bryan has created a wonderful atmosphere there. I ask you to give Bryan a chance to do something for families who aren’t privileged enough to have a swimming pool.”

Ms. Jesseman said Mr. Rhoden doesn’t allow people to “be ugly,” using abusive language or starting fights. She said he also does not allow people to bring dogs or other animals onto his property and to help keep the grounds clean he has provided garbage cans.

When trouble breaks out in the area it’s usually caused by people on the county’s property next door, not on Mr. Rhoden’s property, Ms. Jesseman said, urging commissioners to “let this man (Mr. Rhoden) do something great for our county.”

Louie Faulk said he moved from Jacksonville to Glen St. Mary five years ago and one of his best discoveries was finding “Bryan Rhoden’s slice of heaven on the river.”

“I love going to Bryan’s place,” Mr. Faulk said. “It’s clean. I have a pool at home but my grand kids would rather go to the river.”

Eva Seal of Macclenny said she remembers when there were a lot of problems with trash and broken glass and people drinking and using drugs along the river in the area. But she credited Mr. Rhoden with helping get rid of the unsavory elements.

“I’m so impressed with what he’s done down there,” Ms. Seal said. “It is clean. My 8-year-old boy would rather go there than to the county fair.”

Having a campground in Macclenny would save people money and time by no longer having to travel much farther distances to camp overnight with their families, she said.

Johnny Mabry lives on Steel Bridge Road adjacent to the proposed recreational facility, which Mr. Mabry said “used to be loud and trashy, with a lot of broken glass and people drinking.” Not any more, he said.

“Bryan has cleaned the place up,” Mr. Mabry said. “He has worked his tail off. I am definitely for it. I think it will generate revenue for the county.”

Mr. Rhoden was the last speaker to address the commission. He said he has owned the property since 1987 and his vision is to “provide a decent place to go and recreate with our kids and grandkids.”

He said he will not tolerate troublemakers and promised to closely supervise visitors to ensure that they keep to the rules — or else he’ll call the sheriff’s office to have them removed.

“People don’t tend to act out when you watch them,” said Mr. Rhoden, who said he allows visitors to come to his riverfront property at no charge, “only donations.”

Mr. Rhoden said that most of the people who visit his property do so during the summer months, but that he could envision camping throughout the year. That would entail putting in toilets and a septic system to handle human waste.

He said he also would be responsible for keeping the grounds clean and hauling garbage cans to the dump. Eventually, he said, he might be in a position to hire people to work for him if he ever earns enough revenue from camping fees.

Commissioner Jimmy Anderson said he appreciated Mr. Rhoden’s efforts, which he said have created “a controlled environment out there.”

“I think it’s a good thing for the county,” Mr. Anderson said, adding that one day the county might even begin collecting bed taxes from people staying overnight there in recreational vehicles.

Commissioner Adam Giddens said he was impressed by what he had heard, too, particularly that Mr. Rhoden “is going to be there to oversee it.”

Moments prior to the vote Commissioner Crews solicited the owner’s assurance that he will “not let this get out of hand, keep it a clean environment and follow the rules.”

Commissioner Anderson then moved to approve the rezoning and Commissioner Mark Hartley seconded the motion, followed by a 4-0 vote. Commissioner Michael Crews was absent due to illness.

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