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Interest grows in proposed sprawling park
shaw jones and floyd
Bill Jones of the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land, center, talks with county zoning administrator and disc golf enthusiast George Shaw, left, and Commissioner Forrest Floyd, right, following a meeting on the Potato Barrel Swamp tract. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

There could be a wide range of activities taking place on a vast tract of land in southern Effingham County.

Bill Jones of the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land conducted a public meeting Friday to discuss the potential for the 1,415 acres. The plan, according to Jones, is to have an association form of the various groups with an interest in the park. That group would be responsible for steering the uses of the property and where the best places for those pastimes are.

“Ideally, it should be as local as it could be,” Jones said.

Boy Scouts, mountain biking, disc golf, radio-control model planes, gardening and horseback-riding enthusiasts were among those who took part in Friday evening’s talks.

The bulk of the tract lies in Effingham, with a chunk of it lying in Chatham County. Its current name is the Potato Barrel Swamp Nature Preserve, a name given to it in a contest. It draws upon the county’s reputation two centuries ago as one of the world’s leading makers of potato barrels.

Much of the Effingham portion of the land lies within the county’s 1st District, and 1st District Commissioner Forrest Floyd said he is intrigued by the land and its possibilities.

“To find we have this many people interested in passive recreation is great for the community,” he said. “We’ve always had a huge demand for ball fields, soccer fields. But I have had calls from people interested in walking trails, something similar to what we have at Baker Pond. I’m excited about that aspect of it, that we can open something like that on that end of the county.”

Effingham County Recreation and Parks Director Clarence Morgan also said he is eager to see what transpires on the land.

“This is a great project that we definitely need in Effingham County,” he said.

Access one issue
However, there are obstacles. How to get to the property has to be worked out, which Jones acknowledged.

“We’re a little sketchy on the access right now,” he said. “That’s one of our problems we’re going to have to overcome.”

The trust has an easement through the neighboring Big Nasty ATV Park, and Jones said he hoped an adjacent neighborhood would allow for an entrance to the park from its land. Securing the property also could be problematic, and Jones added the goal was to deter vehicles from entering it yet allow people in to use the land.

“There’s virtually no way to completely secure it,” he said.

Morgan noted that vandalism is an ongoing issue at the county’s parks and facilities.

“There is no answer for vandalism,” he said, “unless you have 24-hour surveillance.”

Jones put forth the hope that the groups and individuals who come together in support of the park will help monitor its security and discourage interlopers.

Brett Gordon owns seven-and-a-half acres next to the tract, and he had questions of his own about its future. Gordon said when the land was zoned, a restriction was put in place that there would be no access within 100 yards of any private property.

“Will the conservation honor that?” he asked.

Gordon also wanted to know who would answer questions about the property and what goes on there once it’s opened.

“No offense,” Gordon said, “but I don’t want to hear your airplanes flying in my backyard.”

“We want to respect your property rights,” Jones said. “We want to be good neighbors. There is a leap of faith in a lot of this. We kind of have to trust each other. We won’t ask for money to use this property.”

There are two access points into the tract, and it has 3.1 miles of interior roads. The existing roads will be used for hiking and bicycle trails. Use of off-road vehicles will be limited on the property, restricted to such measures as building and maintaining roads, property maintenance and scientific education. The trust also plans to build two small parking lots for the park’s users at the existing two access points.

Construction on the tract will be limited to trails, viewing platforms, restrooms and picnic and teaching shelters, and new construction will be at least 150 feet from streams and wetlands, according to the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land.

Uses and benefits
One idea suggested was to attempt to put the radio-controlled airplanes, if they are part of the park’s uses, toward the center of the property, away from neighbors, and reserve the border areas for gardening and other, quieter pursuits, such as biking.

The Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land got the tract in December 2013 from a private donor. The 1,415-acre tract is mostly wetlands. Jones said the trust began thinking about what could happen on the land once the property’s availability was brought to the group’s attention.

“We think for conservation to really work and be successful, you should not take that land and put a fence around it,” Jones said. “We think you can have conservation and make it a nice place for the trees and squirrels but also allow the public to come use for it, for recreation, for science education and for economic development. There are things we can think can happen that will make people think, ‘I want to go do that thing in Effingham County.’”

The land’s ownership and the driving force behind its potential attractions are not functions of the county government, though the trust eventually could turn the property over to the county.

“If this goes the way we want it to, we’ll turn it over to the county in about 20-30 years,” Jones said.

Once the land is open for use, Jones also hopes it’s an economic boon to the county. Radio-control airplane enthusiasts pointed out their National Model Aviation Day event last year drew 60 pilots and 500 spectators to their field off U.S. Highway 17.

“It’s a great economic driver,” Jones said of the potential park.

But the trust isn’t looking to make money off the land and the crowd it draws, according to Jones.

“This will not be a revenue-producing thing for us,” he said.

While the land is not open to camping and hunting now, making it available for camping was discussed. There also may be archery and target shooting on the property, and limited hunting may be in the works. Jones said it is possible to allow hunting for such groups as disabled veterans.

Another use suggested was target shooting and a shooting range, and Jones offered that something could be done to allow high school cross country teams to use the trails for training and meets.

Jones also said the trust wants to preserve native grasses and is considering planting milkweed, which would attract Monarch butterflies. Jones also said the trust isn’t averse to cutting down trees on the property to make room for activities.

The trust’s goal is to get something going on the property within the next 16 months. The key, Jones said, is for the interest group to form and schedule the projects, along with coming up with a name.

The next meeting of the interested parties, Jones said, should take place on the property. That meeting is expected to happen within the next month.

Jones also said the trust doesn’t have anything like this nor any tract this size.

“The trick is going to be getting our vision together and getting some money,” he said. “I just want to see a lot of stuff happen.”

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