House bill would give lawmakers final say on park monuments

A battle is brewing in Olustee over a proposed monument to honor Union soldiers killed during the battle of Olustee. The monument is the idea of the Sons of Union Veterans. It would be placed near the existing monument at the Olustee battlefield state park. But the proposal is causing some controversy.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After a debate about a Union monument proposed for a Civil War site, a House panel on Monday narrowly approved a bill that would require legislative approval of any new historical monuments in the state park system.

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee voted 7-6 to approve a measure (HB 493) that would shift control over decisions now made by state parks officials. The bill follows outrage in a rural North Florida region about a Union monument proposed for the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, where a Civil War battle was fought in 1864.

Last year, the state Department of Environmental Protection received a proposal to add a Union monument at Olustee from the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. The state agency and the group were startled by the outcry that followed. On Dec. 2, when the department held a public hearing in Lake City about where to place the marker --- normally a routine step --- angry citizens packed the auditorium.

"There's an expectation in historic monuments of permanency --- and that if you're going to change things, (then) that's a policy decision," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and the bill's sponsor.

The outcry was partly due to the department's original plan to locate the Union monument on land acquired by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and given to the state in 1909. The Battle of Olustee, the state's largest Civil War battle, was a Confederate victory, and the land is considered sacred by the many local descendants of those who died there. The United Daughters of the Confederacy raised the money for the historic site, gave it to the state and administered the park until 1949.

The battlefield, between Lake City and Jacksonville, became Florida's first state park and each year draws tens of thousands of people to the area for a re-enactment of the battle. Its existing monument is classical, with Confederate flags depicted on three of its four sides and the names of Confederate regiments forming a border on the ground.

"I think it's appropriate that someone can come in and question whether or not a competing monument will detract from that historical significance," Baxley said. "They simply don't have a forum to have that discussion. I wouldn't care if it was a Martin Luther King monument."

Rep. Elizabeth Porter, a Lake City Republican who has been working with the Department of Environmental Protection to find a solution, voted against Baxley's bill. She called it "a knee-jerk reaction to one specific incident."

"The process worked in my district," Porter said. "We've had meetings, we discussed it and everyone had their side heard. It's funny how people will say 'local control,' 'local control,' 'local control' until they don't get what they want …and then they want the state to come in and mandate otherwise."

The decision-making process is still underway, Porter said, and going through the Department of Environmental Protection makes the process less political, not more. "This is why they were hired, because they can address these concerns from a professional perspective without political influence," Porter said.

"It's not a knee-jerk reaction," said Baxley, who plans to run in 2016 in a Senate district that includes the Olustee area. "It's a principled reaction that says the citizens of Florida should not have to beg bureaucrats to do something."

Parks officials hoped that the U.S. Forest Service would allow the Union monument to be placed on federal land that abuts the state park, but the feds refused.

Baxley, too, has been in touch with the Department of Environmental Protection. He said it gives him heartburn to put the agency in the spotlight, but "the way this is set up, it falls on the park officials to make a decision without any elected body."

"They're not advocates or opponents of this (bill)," Baxley said. "But they certainly see it as a workable plan they could work with."

The Department of Environmental Protection received a total of 337 requests for placement of monuments, plaques and memorials at Florida state parks between February 13, 2013, and January 14, 2014, according to the agency. In all, 50 of the 171 units of the park system received requests.

Two backers of Baxley's bill said they didn't think the process had worked thus far.

"It not only didn't work at the local level, it didn't work at the state level," said Lunelle Siegel, who helped organize the protest at the Lake City hearing. "That's why we're pleased that (Baxley) realized that there is a weakness in the process on historical monuments."

The bill faces two more House committees. Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, is the sponsor of the Senate companion (SB 672) to Baxley's bill; it faces three committees but has yet to be put on an agenda.