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Riverside Retreat leaders, supporters express concern over proposed bridge

Riverside Retreat leaders, supporters express concern over proposed bridge

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Riverside Retreat leaders, supporters express concern over proposed bridge

By Jenna De Marco | Oct. 8, 2009 {1087}

Several proposals being considered by Hendry County officials place a new bridge along the eastern edge of the Florida Conference Riverside Retreat, with a portion of the bridge crossing camp property.

This east alternative shows the new bridge running along the eastern border of the Florida Conference Riverside Retreat (section 427) and crossing a portion of camp property. Source: Photo #09-1310.

It’s an unwelcome prospect for many retreat center supporters and leaders who feel a bridge that close to camp property could disrupt natural habits and bring noise and traffic to the “peace and quiet” of the camp’s environment, said retreat center director Martha Pierce.

Located along the Caloosahatchee River in La Belle, South Florida, Riverside Retreat provides a place for spiritual renewal and relaxation amidst a natural setting. Thousands of people visit the center’s 150-acre property each year.

For the past several weeks, Pierce has been rallying the retreat center’s patrons and friends to contact county officials and voice their opinions about possible bridge locations. In late September, she sent e-mail messages about the issue to 275 people. At least half of the recipients have told her they are speaking on behalf of the retreat center.

“There are people mobilizing in a big way — not just for the camp, but for the community, as well,” Pierce said.

The bridge issue resurfaced about a month ago when Pierce learned Hendry County was again looking into potential locations, a decision many people thought was settled several years ago. Future traffic needs, along with existing “functionally obsolete” bridges, make the road and bridge construction necessary, according to information on the “New River Crossing” county Web site (

Members of the Fort Denaud community, which includes the camp, will gather at the Riverside Retreat worship center at 6 p.m. Oct. 19 for a community discussion on the issue and to prepare for the next Hendry County commissioners meeting, Pierce said.

The county will accept comments about the project during an Oct. 27 public hearing and on the “New River Crossing” Web site until Nov. 6. District 3 County Commissioner Tris Chapman was not available for comment when contacted by e-Review.

The Web site provides aerial illustrations of the proposed bridge, as well as specific details about size and location. In the drawings, sections to the right of the river labeled 111, 145 and 427 represent Riverside Retreat. Three of six possible options for the location of the bridge and the start and end points of the roads leading to and from it are known as “east alternatives.” They place the bridge at or along the eastern border of the retreat center. In the second and third east alternative, a corner of the camp lies under the bridge, Pierce said.

“The area under the (proposed) bridge is open river edge that fades into wooded area for birding and hiking, which is also the backyard of the bunkhouse area,” Pierce said.

Sam Ruev, Megan Bowen and Aaron Lewis help Riverside Retreat director Martha Pierce plant a cypress tree at the camp during one of two yearly opportunities focused on conservation. A UMNS file photo by John Gordon. Photo #08-0968. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0899, 08/18/08.

The bunkhouses, visible dots in section 427 of the drawings, are air-conditioned lodging located about a quarter mile from the edge of the east alternatives, Pierce said. One of Pierce’s main concerns, apart from noise and traffic, is the safety of the children and youth who use those facilities.

Pierce hopes county commissioners select one of three “west alternatives,” which show the bridge crossing the river along the Lee-Hendry county line, a few miles west of the camp. David Berkey, director of the conference’s camps and retreat ministries, echoed that hope.

“Anything involving traffic and construction close to the camp would impair the retreat center and the natural setting that we hope to maintain. … I would hope that they would chose to put it farther away for that reason,” Berkey said.

Kevin Witt, director of camp/retreat ministries for the General Board of Discipleship and a past visitor of Riverside Retreat, has asked Hendry County officials to choose one of the west alternatives. Placing a highway next to Riverside would “directly hinder the spiritual purpose of the center” and would affect a variety of patrons, Witt said.

“The protection of this sacred place is not simply about our own enlightened self-interests as United Methodists who own and operate the center,” Witt said. “It is also about the needs of the many faith-based and nonprofit groups that come to Riverside for their planning, leadership development and programs.”

The east alternatives likely would discourage some people from visiting the camp, affecting the local economy, Pierce said.

“I think my immediate response is that from a tourism point of view, we bring in six to seven thousand people a year and to negatively impact that would be to negatively impact the tourism in this county,” she said.

Pierce says the bridge could also affect the habitats of several species that make their home at Riverside Retreat, including indigo snakes and gopher tortoises. Both are listed as threatened under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species program.

Amanda Baker, a member of Carlson Memorial United Methodist Church in LaBelle, serves on the Riverside site committee. As a nurse, Baker also helps care for children who attend the retreat center’s summer camps. She says she wants to protect the center’s untouched feel, calling it a “natural treasure.”

Joining the camp’s diverse animal life are six otters released into the Caloosahatchee River from the retreat center by the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife on Sanibel Island. Photo by Martha Pierce. Photo #09-1311.

“You don’t hear anything but the birds and your own thoughts and the wind blowing through the trees,” she said.

Tim Buck, youth minister at First United Methodist Church of Punta Gorda, says the east alternatives “are not something that would benefit the camp.” Buck has participated in retreats at Riverside, enjoying the challenge course, hay rides, kayaking and hiking.

“We’ve also done two mission projects where our students paid their own way to go and did some work while they were there to fix up the property,” he said.

Individuals who would like to comment on the proposed alternatives for the bridge location may do so at

More information about the retreat center is available at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.