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Bay Beach Lane residents petition town council on boat speeds

February 26, 2020
By NATHAN MAYBERG ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Backed by signatures of more than 600 people on a petition calling for the reduction of boat speeds, John Russo and Sue Morris walked up to the podium Feb. 18 and expressed their frustration to the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council regarding the changing of a no-wake manatee zone in Estero Bay to a 25 mph zone for half the year by Lee County and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The change has resulted in increased wakes that they say have damaged their docks, put the lives of threatened manatees at risk, increased erosion and damaged mangroves. For a county that leads the state in manatee deaths, the decision to increase the boating speed limit, has been particularly puzzling, they added.

By the end of the day, Town Manager Roger Hernstadt received a go-ahead from the town council to work with the FWC in an attempt to return the boat speed limit back to a no-wake zone in the area.

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It is uncertain how long the process will take to reverse the actions. The current 25 mph zone runs through April before going to a slow, minimum wake zone until November.

According to county and state officials, the change last year stems from unidentified citizen complaints to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to change the speed limit and actions by the Lee County Division of Natural Resources. County spokespersons have stated that Fort Myers Beach officials were notified of the change back in May and were told what needed to be done to maintain the existing speed limit.

Decades of no-wake speed

limit in manatee zone uprooted

John Russo, who has lived at Bay Beach Lane for over 36 years and is a self described "avid boater" and dock owner, is livid about the changes. "I've seen everything happen in this area," he told the town council Feb. 18 of the wildlife in Estero Bay. "It's tranquil, magnificent. That's the reason why I bought there. The only thing I haven't seen in 36 years is a 25 mph speed limit," he said.

"We're told somebody did a survey to replace the signs," Russo said. "Why do it? Who did the studies? Where's the proof? Were there any feasibility studies done? Were there any safety studies done? Were there any boating congestion studies done? Were there any soil erosion studies done? Were there any studies done on the impact that the wake would have on the personal property that's around this area? Were there any studies on the manatees? I don't understand why there is a law that says there are no manatees there now. People, we see manatees there every day."

Russo said the town council and county have the authority to change the zone back to a no-wake zone.

"We're very sympathetic to this issue," Mayor Anita Cereceda told Russo. "We're very aware of it."

Sue Morris, president of the Palms of Bay Beach Condominium Association, called on the town council to reinstate the prior local ordinance that designated the south side of Fort Myers Beach as an idle speed, no wake zone. The town council must present the variance to the state, Morris said, in order to reverse the actions taken to allow the 25 mph zone.

"We are concerned that the present speed limit creates a major public safety hazard and adverse environmental conditions," Morris said. "Increasing the boat speed has put even more manatees at risk. We are baffled by the fact that the north end of the island is a manatee zone, no wake, year-round but the south side is (now) seasonal," Morris said. "And why? To save a boater five minutes of time?"

Matt Behnke, president of the Waterside Dock Association at Bay Beach Lane, said the damage done to the association's docks and boat slips could cost $200,000 to fix. "It is an unsafe environment," he said. "The wakes can raise the docks more than a foot in a split second," he said. The association budgets $35,000 a year for upkeep but the current situation is beyond anything they have prepared for.

"I don't know who in their infinite wisdom it was (to change the speed limit), but if they knew what was transpiring, it would have never happened," he said. "Who was the person who said this is not a manatee zone?" Behnke said manatees are a regular sight in the area year-round, not just April through November.

Town Harbor Master explains

Town of Fort Myers Beach Harbor Master Austin Gilchrist represented the town in a meeting along with Coastal Engineering Consultants and Lee County officials last year where county staff explained they would be removing signs that were out of compliance with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission regulations and replacing them.

"I don't think they specified which areas that were not in (compliance)," he said. "They gave us a flow chart."

Gilchrist said the meeting involved other municipalities in Lee County.

As for the change in the manatee zone of Estero Bay near Bay Beach Lane, Gilchrist said the previous no-wake zone "wasn't lawful. It was out of compliance. It was just something that was overlooked and it was corrected."

The state's side

Melody Kilborn, spokesperson for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation, said "Lee County has been working to replace signs that are either missing or needing to be replaced. 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. We have been referring any citizen calls to Steve Boutelle or Lesli Haynes with the county so they can answer any specific questions about the area."

Lee County's position

Boutelle is the county's Public Works operations manager while Haynes is a senior environmental specialist in the county's division of natural resources. Boutelle has referred previous questions back to the county's spokespersons.

Betsy Clayton, county spokesperson, said "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. The signs in Estero Bay now correctly mark the state manatee protection zones, which Lee County posts in cooperation with FWC."

Clayton said the meeting last May with Gilchrist and others representing municipalities in the county, involved a discussion of "the statutory inconsistencies and county intent to remove the illegal signs unless local jurisdictions opted to enact something consistent with Florida Statute 327.46 to replace it."

Clayton said it was explained at the time that "the town would need a local ordinance that creates a legal zone approved by FWC and receives all necessary permits. Then it can be posted and, after posting, then it can be enforced. Gilchrist said he reported the matter to the town's Public Works Director Chelsea O'Riley. Hernstadt has stated that the decision was made by the county.

Back at the Feb. 18 Town of Fort Myers Beach Council meeting, town resident Jessie Titus called on the town council to protect manatees and the Estero Bay's diverse marine family "just as we do our children in school zones" by lowering back the speed limit for boats.

"They can not protect themselves against us. We are the stewards and we need to step up and take control. We are supposedly the intelligent species," Titus said.



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