Beach Boardwalk Challenged

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    The southern end of Estero Island is home to The Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area (CWA), a 50-acre protected beach habitat that features a vast array of shorebirds unlike any other place on earth. Two property owners however, are seeking a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit to construct a private beach boardwalk to the Gulf of Mexico that could imperil this endangered natural habitat.

    Two Florida Limited Liability Corporations own the properties. Texas Hold’em, LLC owns 8150 Estero Blvd. Principals for Texas Hold’em include Edward and Riley Rood of Carrollton, Texas. Squeeze Me Inn, LLC owns 8170 Estero Blvd, right next door. Principals for Squeeze Me Inn include Kurt and Mary Kroemer of Zionsville, Indiana.

    The Town of Fort Myers Beach became aware of the boardwalk permit when Rae Blake, its environmental and stormwater technician, learned of the project known as Beach Boardwalk on September 29. After sending a preliminary petition for a hearing, she informed Town Council at its October 3 meeting because DEP allows just 14 days to respond before granting the permit.

    Blake told Council that the two properties cannot access the beach because of the wetland between their buildings and the Gulf of Mexico. She expressed concern that this boardwalk would set a precedent for similar projects and signal the end of the wildlife area on the beach. She stated that if the DEP approves the boardwalk permit, a construction permit must be obtained from the Town before anything could be built. Council unanimously passed a motion to protest this permit and directed staff to initiate appropriate measures. Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert then submitted a Petition for Administrative Hearing to the DEP.

    The Florida Audubon Society soon issued its own petition to the DEP to halt the private beach boardwalk. “These actions place a pause on it to allow a DEP review,” Blake notes. “Nothing can move forward until that determination.” The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) established CWAs to protect with landowner support important wildlife concentrations from human disturbance. There are currently 20 across Florida, with the State considering other CWAs for Fort Myers Beach.

     

    Watch The Birdie!

    The Little Estero Island CWA is a favorite spot for birders, a significant nesting area, and an important over-wintering spot for at least 68 species of endangered shore and wading birds such as Snowy & Wilson’s Plovers; Willet & Black Skimmers; Sandwich, Royal, and Least Terns; American oystercatchers; great blue herons; brown pelicans; green, snowy, and reddish egrets, Ruddy turnstones; and roseate spoonbills, as well as a nesting area for sea turtles.

    “These birds like a habitat with a lot of sand and little vegetation, making our beaches perfect,” explains Rae. It is such a crucial nesting area that the FWC closes off this stretch to trespassing annually from April 1 to August 31, with posted signs, stakes, and ribbon.

    During the Fall migration, “millions of shorebirds make their way to the Florida coastline and remain here throughout the Winter,” Rae says. “Many stop here, exhausted and hungry and at the very limit of their endurance, for food and rest before continuing. Barrier islands and sandbars are favorite sites because they afford protection from predators and the elements.”

    Rae describes our CWA as “a dynamic beach that changes all the time.” It is rich with mangroves, sea oats, panic grass, vegetation, and, she emphasizes, “there are great birds everywhere!” Renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, in fact, declared the site the best place in the world to photograph shorebirds.

    In its Petition for Administrative Hearing to the General Counsel for the DEP, the Town stated that the Little Estero Island CWA is an environmentally sensitive area protected under the Town Comprehensive Plan and Environmentally Critical zoning district for native coastal habitat.

     

    Line in The Sand

    The Town disputes that the applicants own all property extending from the mainland to the Gulf of Mexico, including the intervening critical wildlife habitat from the Grand Ole’ Man subdivision that includes the two properties. This plat indicates that the property line extends to the mean high water line approximately 191 feet from the edge of Estero Boulevard, while the Gulf is roughly 730 feet from the road. The Town disagrees that the applicants have sufficient title for the boardwalk over the CWA to the beach fronting the Gulf.

    It believes the following facts warrant reversal or modification of the DEP’s proposed action: The Little Estero Island CWA is safe under the Town’s Comprehensive Plan guidelines to preserve its natural character for the public benefit of future generations. The Town prohibits the removal of dune vegetation and stabilization of submerged and exposed beach by artificial means other than replenishment with compatible sand.

    Protecting the Little Estero Island CWA is in the Town’s Land Development Code as well, specifically “the application of the Environmentally Critical district is to prevent a public harm by precluding the use of land for purposes for which it is unsuited in its natural state and injures the right of others or adversely affects the public interest.” The Town’s rules and regulations prevent the building of permanent structures like the beach boardwalk inside the Little Estero Island CWA, an issue resolved in 1992 by its establishment.

    These safeguards preserve seagrass that affords endangered species protection, food, and areas to lay eggs. Boardwalk handrails are ideal landing spots for predatory birds that will significantly threaten endangered shorebirds and their nesting sites. Garbage from human use can foul the wetland ecosystem and kill wildlife, while boardwalk pilings may potentially leach chemicals into the estuary system to threaten shellfish, invertebrates and fish, the petition says.

    The Town requests that the Office of General Counsel for the DEP deny the beach boardwalk permit or grant the Town an administrative hearing. Officials in Tallahassee will review the petitions to determine if they meet the criteria; if so, an administrative judge will receive the case and schedule a hearing.

    Blake says that residents are weighing in on both sides: “The rental unit owners favor the boardwalk because it increases their property values and their guests will have beach access. Most others are against it because of its negative environmental impact to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area, and they do not want any additional boardwalks in the future. They love the beach just the way it is and want to keep it in its natural state.”

    If you witness anyone violating the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area, immediately contact the FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-FWCC (3922), the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at 911 or 239-477-1000, or the Town of Fort Myers Beach at 239-765-0202. For more information on Critical Wildlife Areas visit MyFWC.com.

     

    Gary Mooney