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Boat speed limit change on Estero Bay draws ire of residents

February 6, 2020
By NATHAN MAYBERG ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

John Russo and some residents at Bay Beach Lane are bewildered that in a county with the most manatee deaths, Lee County elected to increase the boating speed limit of an area past their development in a manatee zone on Estero Bay out to the Gulf of Mexico last fall from slow, no-wake to 25 mph from November through April and minimum wake the rest of the year.

A speed of 25 mph is too fast for boaters to avoid the slow-moving and threatened manatees, Russo said.

Russo and some neighbors say they are worried that the wake from the boats is threatening their dock. They say the once prevalent dolphins have disappeared from their waters where they used to be able to enjoy watching them. So have the kayakers.

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"I watch boats flying by here," Russo said on a cool day as the 42-slip dock shook up and down as boats passed by. He points to stress cracks in the concrete of the 22-year-old dock owned by the Waterside Dock Association, which he said he hasn't seen before the speed limit changed in the fall. "This is a real bad problem," Russo said.

Russo is joined in his frustration by Sue Morris, president of the Palms of Bay Beach Condominium Association. Morris and Russo said a petition has been started to reverse the county's decision on the minimum-wake sign.

"The day after the slow speed ended, boats started flying through," Morris said. Morris said she called town code enforcement to complain but were told there was nothing they could do. Town of Fort Myers Beach Manager Roger Hernstadt said it was a county issue and county decision. Nina Carran, who lives on Bay Beach Lane, said she believes the town can take actions to reverse the speed change.

County spokesperson Timothy Engstrom stated that the signs were changed after some signs in the area (though not this one) went missing and then some complaints were made challenging the legality of some existing signs. A county review of all the signs found that some were not in compliance with state code, Engstrom said.

Morris and Russo said the increased speed of the boats is causing more forceful wakes that are damaging the mangroves on the shore and causing erosion. "They are being beat up," Morris said.

The timing of the change is significant as Lee County experienced 56 manatee deaths in December, which was 39 percent of its 2019 death total for manatees. Of those 56 deaths, 47 were unrecoverable and two were confirmed to be killed by watercraft. Fort Myers Beach had six confirmed manatee deaths in December, none of which were recoverable. Lee County had 144 manatee deaths in total in 2019.

"I don't know what the positive is so a guy can get there (to Big Carlos Pass) six minutes faster," Russo said.

According to statistics provided by the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, there were five manatees found dead in Big Carlos Pass last year.

Russo said the shaking of the docks from the wakes makes it difficult to fish. "I used to take my grandkids to fish. I couldn't trust my grandkids to be out here," he said. The rattling can also make it difficult to get on a boat.

Lee County spokesperson Betsy Clayton said "The town has been aware of this since the early discussions with FWC and got a formal briefing for staff, including discussion on what they would need to do to maintain local regulations, with all the cities invited to a county informational meeting on May 23, 2019."

Fort Myers Beach Councilmember Rexann Hosafros said the town was notified of the speed zone changes last year. She said the Anchorage Advisory Committee and Marine Resources Task Force both opposed the change by the county.

Clayton said an "inconsistency" in signage was discovered after Hurricane Irma when several citizens contacted the FWC Office of Boating and Waterways about missing signs. Staff conversation with FWC revealed that some signs did not comply with state rules, prompting a countywide review and corrections as necessary to comply with the statutory requirements for local vessel restrictions."

For around 30 years, Engstrom stated, much of Lee County was covered by a local vessel control ordinance that stated vessels needed to go idle speed within 500 feet of any water oriented structure." He said the vessel speed restriction zones are currently in direct conflict with Florida Statute 327."

Engstrom said the county "began a countywide systematic review of all the signs it was responsible for with the intention of correcting all statutory conflicts," last year. "Using 327.46 as the legal authority for local zones the County identified a number of idle speed zones that needed to be removed. As part of the review, staff also considered if they would qualify for regulation under the manatee rule or any other local speed zone definition authorized by 327.46 Florida Statutes," he stated.

After the review, "many idle speed zones changed to slow speed zones based on FWC manatee speed zones," Engstrom stated. "However, noticeable changes occurred in areas that were posted locally as idle speed but are not part of a year round manatee speed zone. In those areas, where staff could not see conditions qualifying for regulation under 327.46, traffic has become seasonally unregulated or in some cases regulated at 25 mph.

"Areas that desire to implement more restrictive vessel speeds will have to go through the process of adopting a local ordinance that is approved by FWC based on one of the defined allowances or other "substantial competent evidence" (per 327.46) of a general boating safety issue," Engstrom wrote.

"Any future changes would be subject to approval and adoption of new regulations and would be coordinated between all applicable state and local agencies along with an opportunity for public input from all interested parties and stakeholders," Engstrom stated.

Shannon Knowles, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson, referred questions seeking detail about the process that led to the changing of the signs last year back to Lee County.

"Cities and counties, after evaluation, may apply to the FWC for a boating safety speed zone," Knowles stated.

"Typically, area municipalities determine whether or not to request a speed zone on state waters within their area. Then, it is reviewed for statutory compliance by the FWC, public meetings are held and if approved, the zone is instituted and marked. Municipalities have the authority to regulate speed zones in canals less than 300 feet in width," Knowles wrote.

Ray Sandelli, who represents Fort Myers Beach on the Lee County Board of County Commissioners said the old no-wake sign was not in compliance with state regulations.

"Historically, this has been the time when manatees are less prevalent," he said. "I think we are all concerned and aware of wildlife and the protection of wildlife."

Knowles said the FWC is referring questions from the public regarding the changes to the signs back to the county's Natural Resources staff which made the decisions. "We have received calls from citizens about the Estero Bay area and have had conference calls with the county about these changes so that everyone is aware," Knowles stated.

"We just want life to go back to being quiet," Morris said.



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