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.firstname.lastname@example.org