Last fall, the Town of Fort Myers Beach asserted its rightful authority in determining how to protect the nature of this unique barrier island paradise. In so doing, the Town Council voted 3-2 to not approve a special exception to Town rules prohibiting a 300 foot boardwalk across mangroves, tidal lagoon and marshes and into a sensitive, pristine beach habitat next to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area. As important as access is to the beach, the two applicants already have access and decided they want their own private walkway across and into pristine habitat. Granting such an exception to them would create a precedent that would see many more boardwalks in the vital Critical Wildlife Area at the south end of the island, thus severely compromising the integrity of this rare habitat for several imperiled species. It also is unfair to see the public trust in protecting extremely rare habitats and the wildlife that depend on them subverted for two properties’ private privilege. Every citizen of the Town deserves to appreciate the amazing nature of this barrier island and it is the Town’s responsibility to assure it is protected for all.
Boardwalks over water, wetlands and into wildlife habitat introduce predators such as rats, raccoons and feral cats, as well as encourage human foot traffic in areas that conflict with wildlife needs for nesting, resting and feeding. This part of Fort Myers Beach hosts one of the largest nesting colonies of imperiled shore and seabirds in Florida every spring and summer. It’s so important that Audubon hires two biologists and trains dozens of volunteers, as does the State wildlife agency, FWC, for this area. Listed species on this part of the island include American oystercatchers, black skimmers, least terns, little blue herons, piping plovers, reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills, red knots, snowy plovers, tricolored herons, wood storks and American avocets, plus loggerhead and other sea turtles. Additionally, the mangrove and dune vegetation which would be impacted by increased foot traffic and the permanent structure itself, is critical not only to wildlife, but also to protecting the very properties asking for this boardwalk – a sad irony.
Ultimately, the Town must balance the short-term wants of two rental properties against the responsibility to assure the few but outstanding remaining natural areas of this barrier island community remain vital for future generations. Fort Myers Beach should not let the narrow considerations of a Tallahassee agency – FDEP – impose its ill-informed priorities on the Town. The Council’s vote last fall was wise, and it should not waver from that for the re-hearing of this same question in February’s repeat vote.
by Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida Policy Associate