Protecting Florida’s Water, Wildlife, Habitat

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Julie Wraithmell is the President of The Florida Audubon Society. We notified Julie that Estero Boulevard resident Eddie Rood was writing a letter to the editor about his Dune Walkover in our Tuesday edition. We offered Julie an opportunity to respond. Here is her submission.

(By Julie Wraithmell) Audubon is Florida’s oldest, statewide conservation organization. We pride ourselves on a long legacy of using science and policy expertise to protect Florida’s water, wildlife, and habitat. These natural resources are not only the foundation of our quality of life here in Florida, but also the foundation of our economy.

For several years, two out-of-state owners of rental properties on Ft. Myers Beach have been trying to gain permission to build a private boardwalk for themselves across the state-owned lagoon and beach from their homes on Estero Boulevard.

The Town has long had an ordinance prohibiting this kind of structure because they undermine the health of the beach-dune system, are easily destroyed in storm events, becoming hazardous debris on public beach and neighboring private property, and these structures unfairly provide a private benefit at the expense of public resources.

The Town’s tourist economy and the property values of all of its property owners are dependent upon the health and natural landscape of Ft. Myers Beach. It is beautiful and healthy in no small part due to the protections of the Town’s wise ordinances and the critical wildlife area designation.

Audubon did not file a lawsuit—we filed an administrative challenge years ago to the state’s intent to permit this activity while the application was incomplete. Notably, the state permit application requires demonstration that the project complies with local ordinances.

Instead of waiting until the application was complete, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) decided to issue the permit contingent on the compliance. For this and many other reasons, Audubon stood by the Town and jointly challenged the DEP’s decision to grant any permit or waive any permit requirements for this boardwalk.

While the Administrative Law Judge did not agree with all of our points raised at the hearing, he did agree that no state permits could be issued without Town Council approval, and the Secretary of the DEP concurred. This is why the rental home owners have been doing everything they can to pressure the Town to grant this permission.

When the rental home owners tried to gain approval from the Town, they were informed that the proposed structure does not comply with Town Code and would need a special exception. Instead of applying for the special exception, the rental home owners sued the Town in appeals court. They lost and the Appeals Court Judge ruled the Town knows its code better than the homeowners. The rental home owners appealed again, and the higher appeals court, again, denounced the appeal, and ruled in favor of the Town.

In response, the homeowners demanded the Town grant their project a special exception to the Town Code. The Town followed their Town Code and properly denied the special exception. Frustrated by this result, the rental home owners are now threatening to sue the town yet again. They claim their $1 million+ property values have been diminished by the town’s enforcement of an ordinance that applies to all properties in Ft. Myers Beach, and claiming that land that belongs to all the people of Florida—the tidal lagoon and wildlife-rich habitat of Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area—belongs to them.

Their offer of a settlement– which was little more than suggesting the Town should abandon their ordinance in the face of bullying—was rightly rejected by the Town Council on August 17. If Town dollars are spent defending the beach, the town’s economy, and property values in court, it is only because the rental home owners are continuing to bully the Town council and insist that the rules should not apply to them.

Audubon’s members in Ft. Myers Beach and beyond have stood up in support of the Town for these resources because they are very special, and they belong to all the people of Florida. The beach supports rare and threatened species of birds and marine turtles. It buoys property values with its scenic beauty and with the protection it affords landward homes and businesses from storm surge, wave action, and rising seas. It supports a vibrant tourist economy and provides Ft. Myers Beach residents with one of the most charmed qualities of life on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Ft. Myers Beach is fortunate that past councils had the foresight to recognize that these resources are the town’s “goose that lays the golden eggs,” and put protections in place to safeguard them. Vice Mayor Rexann Hosfros, Councilman Jim Atterholt, and Councilman Bill Veach are to be applauded for their integrity and fortitude on August 17. They stood up for all the people of Ft. Myers Beach and indeed the people of Florida, rather than capitulating to the continued threats of a few individuals motivated by their own self-interest.

Thank you for your leadership—Audubon stands with you.

Julie Wraithmell is the President of the Florida Audubon Society and can be reached by e-mail at Julie.wraithmell@audubon.org 

7 COMMENTS

  1. No need to have Julie on the show. It will be a she said, he said debate and there’s nothing to debate as the process is in play. The town rejected this boardwalk 3 times at 3 different hearings so now it’s in the home owners court. They should either file suit or move along!

    • Hello Liz, I disagree, I think the BTR listeners deserve an open and polite discussion explaining both opinions in a forum where Julie and I can ask each other questions and explain why our opinions are what they are.

  2. Excellent response from the Audubon Society Florida President. Good to see both sides of this story. I believe what the President states as her comments are factual and objective, and she really has nothing to gain personally like the out of state owners of the rental properties who continue to bully the town. Just read their posts. So glad council voted the way they did, THREE times. Good to have a council who doesn’t succumb to threats and who stand up for FMB!

  3. It is interesting that if the Audubon owns the walkover, then theirs is ok, but this proposed walkover that they don’t own is bad. Also after reading Kroemer’s comments, I also looked for all the State of Florida owned property, and the property behind the property owned by Kroemer and Rood is not shown as State owned. So the question is, is the property that holds the CWA privately owned? Second question that needs to be considered is, can the CWA exist on private property? It seems the Audubon and the property owners should sit down and have a discussion before everything is lost.

  4. Thank you Kurt Kroemer for your great explanation.
    This letter is so full of misleading and non factual information that I would have to make a reply as long as her letter to to explain it, and it’s just not worth my time. I would like to suggest to BTR, that Ed invite Julie and I to his show one Saturday morning to have an open discussion live on BTR. If the BTR followers agree that it would be a great show, please let Ed know and also email Julie and encourage her to accept. Julie’s email address is at the bottom of her letter.

  5. I want to address only some of the misinformation in this letter. As there are many details involved in this disagreement, I will highlight the issues which stand out.

    First, Audubon Executive Director is over the Cork Screw Sanctuary, a tourist attraction run by the Audubon Society which includes a one mile boardwalk through a bird sanctuary, designed to bring profits to the Society. Thus, language in this article denouncing our project is spoken with forked tongue. Boardwalks are used extensively on Florida beaches to protect the environment. This project will help neighbors from walking randomly through the estuary.

    Is rental properties used as a derogatory term? Do we not want tourism to be attracted to FMB? While my house is used as a rental property currently, long term use will be my retirement home. Renting a beachfront home without beach front access is not a desirable rental. When my rental sits empty, so does a table in a nearby restaurant.

    The town does NOT have an ordinance prohibiting this kind of structure. FMB Land Development Code 6-366 specifically allows dune walkovers and minor structures.

    Dune walkovers are designed such that they DO breakaway in major storms and hurricanes, as to not change the dune landscape. Breaking away is a benefit, as well as the definition of a minor structure.

    It is mentioned that this structure is being built on state-owned property, however, in 5 years, Audubon has never been able to produce documents proving this point. Please go the Florida State Owned Property website and look up Little Estero Island. You will find Little Estero Island is nowhere near our project.

    If this is state owned property, well it is the State that is allowing and defending these permits! So why is the Audubon sticking their nose into a project on land for which neither the town or the Audubon own? The state ruled this is an environmentally friendly project and is allowing the permits. The town is now acting on the same lost arguments of the administrative challenge.

    The Administrative Law Judge did not agree with “ANY” of the Audubon’s concerns.

    Town code section 6-366 allows dune walkovers by right.

    To say we are threatening and bullying, is quite the opposite. We have been very open with communication as to the ramifications of each council’s vote. A threat is only a threat if we never take the action. To date, we have made no threats. We have done exactly what we said will be the next step in the process.

    I would hold off on any applause until the quiet title suit is completed. I believe there are only two council members who fully understand what is at risk. Dan Allers, who understands we have followed and met the Special Exception requirements, and Ray Murphy, who understands the land ownership issues are not as clear as the Audubon is betting they understand them.

    Kurt Kroemer
    Squeeze Me Inn LLC

  6. This is an extraordinary letter from the Audubon president which clearly outlines the conversation and supports the town council’s decision. Thank you Ed for reaching out and publishing her response. This is exactly what was needed.

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