County appeals Ceitus boat lift removal; Cape officials, citizens irked
Cape Coral elected officials and residents are fuming after the Lee County Commission decided Tuesday to appeal a decision to remove the Ceitus boat lift in the city’s northwest spreader system.
Commissioner Bob Janes added the discussion as a commissioner item at Tuesday’s meeting. While no one in Cape Coral was notified, an environmentalist from Pine Island and a representative of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection both gave short presentations.
After hearing the two sides, the commission voted unanimously to appeal the city’s order to remove the lift.
“This is an issue that has much greater ramifications than was initially looked at,” Commission Chairman Ray Judah said Wednesday.
The county has until Monday to file an appeal or the city’s decision would stand.
Both the commission’s decision and the way it handled the discussion infuriated Councilmember Tim Day.
“It was really inappropriate to not contact the city so we could respond to this. It is just out and out wrong,” he said. “We’re trying to do the right thing for the people. At least give us the ability to explain what is going on and why we did what we did.”
Mayor Eric Feichthaler also disagreed with the commission’s position, but said he is much more disappointed that the city was “not invited to take part in the process at all.” Feichthaler noted that Judah will speak at Monday’s City Council meeting to explain the county’s position, but said he would have preferred the discussion take place before the commission had taken a vote.
For his part, Judah said that he is willing to apologize in person for the way the commission brought the issue up, but not the reasoning behind its position.
“We have to get beyond hurt feelings,” he said.
The chairman argued that removing the lift and waiting a year until making a decision on a new structure could just be the “easy way out.”
“If the action ultimately results in the removal of that lift, then let’s have a plan of action immediately (afterward),” said Judah.
With the county filing a petition of appeal, removing the lift will be delayed for at least several months.
The city has long argued that water flowing out from northwest neighborhoods is destroying acres of mangroves in the spreader because the lift is causing a higher flow velocity and damaging the plants. After receiving an OK from Florida Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Protection, council approved the lift’s removal late last month.
“Our primary focus is to stop the damage to the wetlands that is going on right now to the west of that lift. There are six or more acres of mangroves that are currently in distress because of the velocity of the water that is passing through,” said city engineer Oliver Clarke. “If we don’t get that obstacle out of the way and remove that gradient these mangroves are going to be lost.
City spokeswoman Connie Barron confirmed Wednesday that no one at City Hall was told that discussion on the lift would take place at the commission meeting.
City Manager Terry Stewart received an e-mail that he should “check out the meeting” and rushed to downtown Fort Myers. But he arrived several minutes after the meeting ended and was simply told it was a last-minute decision to add the item to the agenda.
Homeowners in the northwest were also surprised and disappointed at the way the commission handled the subject. Former Northwest Neighborhood Association President Nate Bliss said the process to remove the lift has been going on for two years and any group who wanted to stop it should have come forward long ago.
“This came as a complete shock to us,” he said. “We expected they would have come to the City Council meeting at the time that the consent agenda item was approved.“
Bliss called the commission’s move to allow an agenda item at the last minute “reprehensible,” and argued that it violated the group’s own rules. He also criticized the Pine Island activists as being “ill-advised and ill-informed” and said their action could cause even greater damage to both the mangroves and water quality.
“These people don’t really understand that the immediate choices are very limited. The delay of the removal of this is very likely going to exacerbate the problem,” he said. “Nothing is so firmly believed as what is least understood. These people do not have the facts; they are shooting from the hip.“
But Phil Buchanan, the Pine Island resident leading the charge against the lift being removed, said he has been active for months by writing letters to the editor and even attending neighborhood meetings in the Cape. Several groups have signed on to the effort including the Caloosa Land Trust and the Pine Island Civic Association.
Buchanan believes that the problems in the spreader are due to a lack of maintenance and that they can be solved by patching the breaches.
He is worried that, despite the DEP’s pledge to review the pollution levels and see if the lift or a lock should be put back in, the Matlacha Pass will suffer irreparable damage.
“I think if they take out the lift and the berm they will never put it back,” he said. “And there’s no guarantee they’ll do something in a year.”
City officials point to 13 breaches in the system as evidence that any pollutants that could be coming from the northwest neighborhoods are already ending up in the pass. The breach right next to the lift is more than 100 feet wide and nearly 20 feet deep, rending the lift essentially useless.