Judge Hears Case over Private Boardwalk on Fort Myers Beach
A Florida administrative law judge in Fort Myers began hearing testimony this week over the proposed construction of a private boardwalk over a publically owned wildlife area on Fort Myers Beach that is considered critical to a variety of threatened and endangered species.
The case before Administrative Judge Gary Early concerns a permit for a boardwalk sought by two out-of-state companies that own homes adjacent to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area near the south end of Fort Myers Beach. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection had been poised to grant the permit to Texas Hold ‘EM LLC and Squeeze Me Inn LLC in 2016 before the Florida Audubon Society intervened to stop it.
Audubon Florida executive director Julie Wraithmell describes the location in question as a “hit parade” of imperiled and declining wildlife species.
“Beach nesting birds like Wilson’s plovers, snowy plovers, which are state threatened; least terns and black skimmers have used the area historically, as well as federally threatened wintering red knots and piping plovers,” said Wraithmell.
“You have roseate spoonbills and reddish egrets, both of which are threatened, that use the tidal lagoon for foraging habitat. It’s a really special place, a really remarkable place.”
Members of the Fort Myers Beach Town Council voted unanimously to oppose the permit, which does not comply with local ordinances, and the town filed a petition for this week’s administrative hearing.
Audubon and Fort Myers Beach officials have also expressed concern that approving a private-use boardwalk over publically owned land considered critical to endangered wildlife could set a harmful precedent for future development. In the petition, Fort Myers Beach attorney Dawn Lehnert notes that allowing the private boardwalk would likely increase the property value of the rental homes. Lehnert writes, “As a result surrounding property owners will desire the same amenity, which is likely to cause a proliferation of requests for individual private boardwalks in this location.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which initially designated the spot as a critical wildlife area in 1992 has also expressed concerns over the proposed boardwalk.
Audubon of Florida’s Wraithmell also notes that the boardwalk could become problematic in the event of severe weather. “Case in point: If this boardwalk had been built two years ago when it was proposed, what do you think would have happened to it in tropical storm Alberto? It would have been scattered all across those conservation lands as well as across the properties of neighboring land owners,” said Wraithmell.
“That’s just not the responsible way for us to do construction on the coasts in Florida.”
Judge Early said he plans to make a decision in the case in about a month.