Collier County off-roaders may have finally found a place to ride.
The Federal Aviation Administration has given county officials preliminary approval to build an ATV park at the Immokalee airport. The site is about half the size the county wanted, but proponents of an off-road park are willing to take what they can get after more than a decade of fruitless searching.
"At this point in time, something is better than nothing," said Jeff Close, a member of a county advisory committee tasked with finding land for the park. "It's a start."
The park would go on about 300 acres of undeveloped airport land. The county already owns the land and, with trees and tall vegetation, it may not need much work, said Steve Carnell, administrator of the county public services department.
"With the layout the way it is, the site could be big enough," Carnell said. "There isn't much we would need to work around because the things that are there are the things you want. The trees and other vegetation make for good trails."
The county needs to conduct an environmental review and put forward a business plan to show the FAA that the park would be self-sustaining.
The FAA would have to sign off on the park before it could be built. But local airport leaders think the off-roaders would complement the Immokalee airport's drag racing strip and perhaps spur enough interest to bring a campground back to the airport.
A campground would be key to a successful off-road park, Close said.
"You almost have to have one if you're going to pull people in from other counties," he said. "You can't expect people to come that distance then just load up and go home."
The airport had intended to build a campground to go with the drag strip. Construction started but never finished. With talk of an ATV park, the airport could revive plans to finish the campground, said airport manager Justin Lobb.
"It's something we're definitely interested in pursuing," Lobb said. "The idea is a campground and an ATV park would be very complementary, so we're waiting to see if the ATV park will come to fruition. There are still hurdles we need to go through, but the park would definitely be beneficial to the airport."
The money to build the park would come from a $3 million settlement the county received in 2011 from the South Florida Water Management District.
The district pledged in 2003 to find one square-mile — 640 acres — for off-roaders in return for kicking them out of the Picayune Strand State Forest as part of an Everglades restoration project. Over the next eight years, the district's search found nothing but unwilling sellers and environmental concerns. Eventually, the county government filed a lawsuit against the district. In a 2011 settlement, the district threw up its hands and paid the county $3 million to conduct the search itself.
Four years later, that money still is sitting in county coffers almost entirely untouched. In October, the county set aside $10,000 to create a program to give residents free tickets to ATV parks within a few hours drive of the county. The program offered more than 300 tickets to residents who wanted them and was used to gauge public interest. In a matter of months, all tickets were claimed.
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