After spending $500,000 of taxpayer money (so far) to prevent two Fort Myers Beach homeowners from building a dune walkover in their backyards, the town has suddenly proposed a settlement which includes approving the walkover.
The town’s proposal has one stipulation that, as written now, rendered it dead on arrival.
In exchange for approving the walkover, the town has asked Rood and Kroemer to make it accessible to the general public, which means anyone would be allowed to access the beach by going through their private property. That stipulation has been rejected. Rood and Kroemer had previously stated that the neighbors of their community would be allowed to use the walkover.
Other stipulations made by the town include, restoring harmed vegetation, relocate the walkover outside nesting areas, not working on it during turtle season and using the correct equipment. Allowing public access appears to be the big one.
On Monday, Mayor Ray Murphy, who’s in favor of approving the walkover said, “We’re not that far away with these people. Where both sides are digging in is public access being granted to the beach over this walkover.” Murphy wants the matter settled and wants the town to stop spending money fighting the issue.
Another issue the town has to worry about is the possibility of losing the Critical Wildlife Area. Rood and Kroemer have filed a lawsuit against the state of Florida challenging the state’s claim of ownership of the property behind their homes. The suit will confirm whether the property owners own the accreted land that has formed behind their properties over the last twenty years. Should they win the lawsuit, the current CWA borders might be dissolved and the land could become private property.
Mayor Murphy said he told the town council months ago that he had a discussion with the Department of Environmental Protection’s Chief Council Justin Wolfe who told him that if Rood and Kroemer ever filed a lawsuit to get the Critical Wildlife Area they have a real good shot at winning because of problems with the way the Critical Wildlife area was set up. Town Attorney John Herin admitted yesterday that he’s never spoken to Wolfe about the matter.
In addition, we’ve obtained a 2016 e-mail between then Fort Myers Beach Environmental Storm Water Technician Rae Blake and Fort Myers Beach Director of Community Development Kara Lynn Stewart. In that e-mail, Blake said she spoke to someone at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection who stated that “the little Estero CWA was set aside as state lands without approval of homeowners so if the CWA area was disputed in court the most likely outcome is that the CWA would be dissolved and the state would lose rights to that area.”
When Mayor Murphy began to discuss a possible way to settle the situation, Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros, who’s against the walkover, cut him off saying it wasn’t appropriate to have negotiations in this forum.” She said the discussion was for an executive session.
However Hosafros was incorrect about that because a lawsuit has not been filed yet against the town so by law the town is not allowed to discuss the issue privately. Rood and Kroemer have said they plan to file a Bert Harris lawsuit if the town does not approve a special exception to approve the walkover. The quiet title lawsuit is between the homeowners and the state of Florida, not the town.
Murphy shot back…”I have the floor now. This is my item.”
The Fort Myers Beach staff was scheduled to have a call with the town’s outside council on Monday to discuss the proposal on the table. When Town Attorney John Herin asked the council to allow him time to speak with the DEP and have the call with the town’s outside attorney before discussing the issue any further, Mayor Murphy declined.
Murphy said, “I will not be silenced. He told Herin, I’m going to give you a suggestion about what to tell the outside attorney. “We’ve spent over a half million dollars on this case already. Our exposure is another $1.5 million on the other side of a Bert Harris lawsuit. We’re scrambling around trying to find money for Bay Oaks, and all of these other projects, meanwhile its going out the window on something like this.”
Murphy said who can blame Rood and Kroemer for not wanting public access through their property. And, he added, the town claims another goal is to protect the Critical Wildlife Area. There’s a chance that the Critical Wildlife Area is going to go away if they are successful in this quiet title suit. That’s a distinct possibility. My proposal is for our outside council to ask Rood and Kroemer to drop the quiet title search and thereby finding a possible resolution and end this.” Rood had said in the past that if the special exception was approved he would never have filed the silent title claim to take ownership of the CWA land.
Rood and Kroemer say they had direct beach access but lost it over time to the growing CWA and the fact that their neighbor blocked off access from behind his home when he discovered he actually owned land that people were using as a cut-through to the beach.
They need the town to approve a special exception so they can build a boardwalk which will get them access to the beach and by not granting the permit, the homeowners say, their homes have been devalued. A Bert Harris lawsuit would determine if the town might need to pay compensation to the homeowners for the value they have lost.
A group in the community believes that building this walkway would be damaging to the wildlife in the CWA. That group includes the Audubon Society, several members on the council and others in the community. The walkway was proposed just outside the CWA but without the town’s special exception it cannot be built.