PONCE DE LEON — Many locals are hopeful that public access to a much-loved natural resource can be restored since the termination of a lease agreement for a municipal park once held by the county.
Lake Cassidy has been a popular spot for water recreation and catching a sunset for visitors trickling in from nearby counties and Lower Alabama.
“It would be devastating to lose this place,” said Westville resident Randall Wilson.
Wilson and his family have utilized Lake Cassidy for decades for boating, water skiing, tubing and swimming. The lake has provided a scenic venue for birthday parties, reunions and simply grilling on a nice afternoon.
Wilson is afraid family gatherings at Lake Cassidy may permanently be a thing of the past now that public access has ceased.
The acreage around Lake Cassidy had been owned by timber companies for decades. Holmes County had leased one acre of property from Plum Creek Timber Company for $15 per year since 2010 to serve as a municipal park. Last year, the lease expired and Plumb Creek put the land on the market.
According to Holmes County Property Appraiser, Plum Creek sold 500 acres of property around Lake Cassidy to a private company listed as Fountain of Youth Ranch, LLC, registered to Chris Jensen of Pensacola.
“One reason people live around here is because of this lake. This is the only place nearby for the kids to learn how to ski and boat,” said Wilson. “We don’t have movie theaters and bowling alleys. This is our entertainment.”
Wilson said he made the choice to commute an hour one way from his home in the Prosperity community to his job in Fort Rucker, Ala. so he can live close to the rivers, lakes and springs of Holmes County. Wilson is like the 1,346 members of a public group on Facebook called Friends of Lake Cassidy interested in preserving the lake as a natural resource for the community.
The new land owners agree that preservation of the lake and wildlife around it is the goal. Jensen said the lake will remain a natural retreat.
“We have absolutely no plans to develop the property,” said Jensen. “We want to keep it just as it is.”
Jensen is concerned a long-time public misconception about the land’s ownership has fueled disappointment around the termination of public access. The acreage around Lake Cassidy recently sold has, in fact, always been private property owned by timber companies. Jensen and his wife already owned a piece of property on the lake, and their families have lived in the lake’s vicinity since the 1950s.
When the timberland adjacent to their property went on the market, the Jensens moved on the opportunity to buy it in August for $645,000, according to property records. The county then received a notice of termination of the municipal park lease agreement from an attorney back in September, officially ending public access.
“The problem with public access is a liability issue,” said Jensen.
Residents around the lake had expressed concern to commissioners about visitors drinking excessively, acting obscene and littering the property. In the past, Holmes County Board of County Commissioners had asked law enforcement to increase patrol and had inmates clean up trash in the park. The county had also maintained the road and beach providing boat access.
It’s taken the public time to catch on that the lake is now closed. Today, private property signs are tacked on trees all over the park, and members of the community are holding out hope that access to Lake Cassidy is not lost forever.
Last month, commissioners tasked County Attorney Jeff Goodman with researching if it’s legally possible to reach an agreement with the new owners to reopen the public access point.
Jensen said they are willing to explore the possibility and have not yet been officially contacted by the county to discuss it.
“We’re not closing the door on any of that,” said Jensen.