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Fla. feud reflects pinch Scout groups are in as camps draw developers' offers

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Over the years, Scoutmaster Carlos Mendez has toasted marshmallows over a campfire with his son and hundreds of other Boy Scouts under the towering live oaks at Camp Flying Eagle. But he fears other youngsters are going to miss out on the fun.

A development boom has made the 165-acre property along the Manatee River extremely valuable -- so much so that Boy Scout officials are thinking of selling to a home builder.

Mendez said that with so many other activities competing for boys' attention, losing the 77-year-old camp -- used for generations for camping, hiking, swimming, canoeing, and other outdoor fun -- would deal a major blow to scouting in the region.

''I can't see any way that scouting the way we know [it] will still be here," said Mendez, a 50-year-old pediatrician who also serves as camp physician. ''If you stay active, that's what attracts the kids."

Some local Scout boosters are suing to block the sale, in a dispute that has played out in various forms elsewhere around the nation as suburbia spreads into the countryside.

In Beaumont, Texas, a financially strapped local Boy Scout council sold off one of its two camps in 2001, raising the ire of many who had visited over its 70 years.

In Mahwah, N.J., in 2002, the Trust for Public Lands stepped in to rescue the 750-acre Camp Glen Gray from development.

Other situations have arisen in Arizona, Michigan, and Washington.

''The needs change," said Gregg Shields, spokesman for the national council of the Boy Scouts of America, based in Irving, Texas. ''Sometimes Scout camps that were once outside of town are swallowed up by sprawl, or they are no longer conveniently located."

Local councils make their own decisions about property, Shields said.

The dispute over Camp Flying Eagle began last year after the Southwest Florida Boy Scout Council, based 90 miles away in Fort Myers, opened sale discussions with a Virginia home builder that would eventually offer more than $13 million.

Southwest Florida council leaders said that with such big offers being thrown around, it only makes sense to listen, especially since Camp Flying Eagle is in need of millions of dollars in improvements.

The council, which serves 26,000 Scouts, owns another camp north of Fort Myers, more than an hour's drive away for Bradenton Scouts.

Kevin Hennessy, a lawyer for the Southwest Florida council, acknowledged ''you have a lot of people whose roots run pretty deep here, and there is a lot of sentiment in the community to preserve things and keep them how they've always been." But he said the council has to make property decisions based on what is best for its future.

A local Scout booster club, the Manatee County Boys Development Association, bought the land in 1929 and contends in its lawsuit that it deeded the property to the local Scout council in 1991 with the agreement that it never be sold. That stipulation is recorded in meeting minutes but was not written into the deed; the local council merged with the Southwest Florida council in 1995.

B.J. ''Red Dog" Maynard, a retired Army colonel and Scout volunteer who was among those behind the lawsuit, said he believes the entire community will suffer if Camp Flying Eagle is bulldozed.

''This camp has grown up with Manatee County," he said. ''It's part of the culture of this county, just like the parks, the libraries, the beaches, and everything else."

Mendez recalled how his son Antonio, now 15 and a step away from becoming an Eagle Scout, was a third-grader and a new Cub Scout when he made his first overnight trip at the camp.

''I think that was Antonio's first attempt at holding a marshmallow in a campfire," his father said. ''Parents just watched their kids' eyes light up."

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