A view of the open green where the pavilion will be placed in Chapman Botanical Gardens. [ David Adlerstein | The Times ]
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City backs new pavilion, restrooms at gardens

After several residents questioned the plan, and several came forward to defend it, a divided Apalachicola city commission earlier this month approved of a plan by the Florida State Parks to add bathrooms and a permanent covered pavilion to the Chapman Botanical Gardens adjacent to the Orman House Historic State Park.

At the April 2 meeting, following a lengthy queue of speakers voicing their views on the project, the commissioners voted 3-2 to bless the project that had been revised over the previous couple months by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Following a motion by Adriane Elliott, and a second by Mayor Brenda Ash who passed the gavel to Mayor Pro Tem Anita Grove, Donna Duncan cast the deciding vote, with Despina George and Anita Grove voting nay.

While the land for the gardens is owned by the city, Apalachicola has an agreement to have the Florida Parks Service operate and maintain the gardens, named in honor of the famed 19th century botanist, Alvan Chapman, who authored a definitive study of the flora and fauna of the Southeast as well as serving as the city’s mayor.

In addition, the state tends the grounds of the Veterans Memorial Plaza, which contains the Three Servicemen Statue Detail. The plaza is adjacent to the gardens and the Orman House, although its maintenance role is defined under a separate agreement.

Following a back-and-forth with state officials since the beginning of the year, the Florida Park Service modified plans for the project, reducing the size of the pavilion from about 1,800 to 1,464 square feet, and altering its exterior finish from Sierra Tan to match the Hardwood Upland Park color. The columns and trims were modified to reflect the architectural design of the Orman House.

A rendering of the proposed pavilion in Chapman Botanical Gardens. [ FDEP ]

In order to avoid removing live oaks, the placement of the proposed restrooms, each one 432 square feet, were shifted as well. “New site plans are currently being drafted to reflect the updated location of the restrooms, which may require the removal of one holly tree,” said Nikki Clifton, deputy press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

From the outset of the meeting, it was clear a concerted effort had been made to draw proponents of the project to the meeting. A commission meeting in March had left the city’s position on the state’s plan unresolved.

First to speak was Jimmy Elliott, former city commissioner and Elliott’s grandfather who served both in Vietnam as well as the two most recent conflicts in Iraq.

Jimmy Elliott recounted the history of the Three Servicemen Statue Detail, which had been brought to the city through the work of former county commissioner Jimmy Mosconis, who was a sergeant in the unit in which Jan Scruggs, regarded as the force behind the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., served. The statue in Apalachicola is a detail of the original statue by the late sculptor Frederick Hart which is at the memorial in the nation’s capital.

“They (the state) told us if we can’t maintain these properly we could lose them,” said Jimmy Elliott. “The more we can get the state involved in this, the better. It will have our statue protected.

“I’m always in favor of veterans; I know what it’s like to be without a bathroom,” he said, referring to his days serving overseas.

Myrtis Wynn, also an Army veteran, said she was in full support of both the bathrooms and pavilions. “It’s a perfect venue,” she said, describing it as a link to both the proposed African American History Museum and the entire Hill community.

“Sometimes I wonder why every time there’s an improvement on the Hill we get such opposition,” she said. “I feel the city’s hands are full; I think we should leave it in the hands of the state.”

Wynn presented several pages of signatures from the community in support of the state’s plans. 

Also speaking out in support of the project was Mark Shields, commander of American Legion Post 106; Al Mirabella, the post’s previous commander; and Apalachicola resident Thomas Becknell, who outlined Chapman’s prolific career.

“I thank the DEP for their vision and initiative. Their vision honors both the plant life and people of this state,” Becknell said. “I urge the city to recognize how graciously the state representatives have listened. Do not delay and do not allow this funding to slip away.”

Becknell’s wife, P.J. Erwin, also spoke in favor, noting that she was doing so as a member of the community and not in her role as the city’s code enforcement officer.

The commission also heard from several people whose opposition stemmed from the fact the state was behind in updating its management plan for the gardens, and so was putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.

“I don’t think it’s now-or-never funding; it is supposed to be available for quite a while,” said Liz Fitzhugh. “I’m very concerned we have a botanical garden and we’re going to be building buildings before we think where the plants are going to go.”

County Commissioner Ottice Amison, also an Army veteran, said a lot of veterans have handicap issues, making nearby bathrooms all the more necessary. “If we lose this funding, or the state gives the park back it will put a strain on the city,” he said.

One veteran, Al Douglas, asked that the state redesign the bathrooms to be more like Chapman’s house, not too far away on U.S. 98. “But why is there a pavilion? People don’t go to party,” he said.

Katie Davis, who lives behind the gardens, said she had concerns about the restrooms’ location, and the fact that two live oaks might be affected, despite the relocation.

She said the 19 percent reduction was “not a significant compromise. It’s still bigger than a three-bedroom house. Three different (smaller ones) would be better.

“Please urge the DEP to come back to the table with a more appropriate compromise

Let them come back with a new management plan that the public could comment on,” she said. “This is not what a majority of Apalachicola residents are looking for.”

Donna Ingle stressed that “nobody has ever opposed restrooms. Nobody has opposed the pavilion; they’re opposed to the size and location. Make them (pavilions) smaller. The logical place is in front of the gardens, 

“Why can’t we talk about coming together?” she said. “We have to go back and have bathrooms and a pavilion that works for everybody.”

Faye Gibson said the pavilion will be like the one at Scipio Creek, which she said sees limited usage. “To build another pavilion that’s not going to be used is not what we need,” she said.

Cutler Edwards urged the commission to “think broadly about the potential use” of the gardens as a historic path through the town, “a self-guided tour of hundreds of years of Apalachicola.” He said he saw the pavilion as a less expensive site for weddings.

Of concern by the commissioners was what would happen with the funding if the city balked at the state’s proposal, which first emerged several years ago and was backed by the citizen advisory council at that time.

“The residents in the hillside community have not been heard; it’s time now to listen to everybody,” said Ash, adding that opposition has come from “a special interest group pushing the narrative.

“We tabled it and kicked the can down the road,” she said. “Now you have a majority coming in favor. It’s time to allow some development to be had in the hillside (which) has been neglected for so many years. Let’s share in the development of our city.”

George said misinformation has clouded the issue, particularly that opponents don’t care about veterans issues or that the state will wash its hands of maintaining the gardens.

“There’s never been discussion about abandoning the lease,” she said. “Who is pushing that narrative and why? Someone has ginned up a controversy that doesn’t exist.

“I’m dumbstruck. I served on the board with Jimmy Mosconis; I wrote their application. Nobody here is against veterans; nobody is against development on the Hill,” George said. “The DEP improvements violate the spirit of this management plan. The botanical garden would be great for the community if it were a botanical garden. They’re not competing visions.”

Josh Hodson, park manager over the Orman House as well as the Gorrie Museum and the St. George Island state park, clarified to commissioners that the state was not planning on abandoning the gardens. 

“If this project doesn’t happen we’re not taking our football and not going to abandon the gardens and veterans’ plaza. If we don’t build a pavilion and the restrooms we will still pursue making it more of  a botanical area,” she said.

He said in the event the city rejected the state’s proposal, the monies, roughly $800,000, would be allocated elsewhere in Franklin County, perhaps to Bald Point State Park or to the Gorrie Museum.

“I want to be friends with everybody,” he said. “I see a lot of family gatherings and birthday parties (at the gardens), and restrooms getting to serve the veterans plaza. I think we can balance that and also provide a place for some shade for gatherings,  interpretive programs, plant sales.

“We’re going to focus in on Chapman plants and others that would showcase native Florida and that are going to survive,” Hodson said. “We’ll be looking for professional help for the gardens.”

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Meet the Editor

David Adlerstein, The Apalachicola Times’ digital editor, started with the news outlet in January 2002 as a reporter.

Prior to then, David Adlerstein began as a newspaperman with a small Boston weekly, after graduating magna cum laude from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. He later edited the weekly Bellville Times, and as business reporter for the daily Marion Star, both not far from his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.

In 1995, he moved to South Florida, and worked as a business reporter and editor of Medical Business newspaper. In Jan. 2002, he began with the Apalachicola Times, first as reporter and later as editor, and in Oct. 2020, also began editing the Port St. Joe Star.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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