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County nearing end of negotiations on Willow Lake restoration project

By Staff | Jun 22, 2009

The long-awaited restoration of Willow Lake in Bokeelia may take place before the end of fall according to a statement issued by the office of South Florida Water Management District earlier this month.
St. James City resident Barry Thrasher approached Lee County Commissioner Bob Janes for an update on the status of the lake that had been destroyed on the property of the now defunct farm worker housing project. In response, Janes passed the inquiry on to Phil Flood with the South Florida Water Management District who stated that SFWMD was currently in the final negotiations with the property owner Russell Weintraub, with regard to the Consent Order for the Alcorn Tract.
At this point, SFWMD has received and approved a restoration plan for the lake, however, the agency is still awaiting a revised plan for a ditch cross section. When the developers of Weintraub’s Alcorn property filled in Willow Lake, a Lee County ditch had also been re-aligned without authorization and became a concern as well for the SFWMD.
“District Counsel hopes to be forwarding a final draft of the consent agreement and the revised ditch cross section and we will be sending out the consent agreement for signature,” said Flood in an e-mail to Janes. “We are optimistic that we will have the signed consent agreement back from Mr. Weintraub in time to have it on the July governing board agenda.”
Once the SFWMD receives both the consent agreement and the ditch cross section the restoration work for Willow Lake and the county ditch must be completed within 90 days of the effective date of the agreement. According to Flood, the effective date of the consent agreement will be the date on which it goes before the governing board.
Thrasher however, does not feel as though the restoration of Willow Lake will be enough.
“In my opinion, SFWMD will never acknowledge the gravity of Weintraub’s tragic destruction of Willow Lake, therefore, I anticipate that the SFWMD will obsequiously allow Mr. Weintraub to make a superficial restoration of the lake which will fail pitifully short of its original dimensions and will do nothing to address its original ecological impact,” said Thrasher. “The fines imposed are miniscule in comparison to the financial benefits gained by Mr. Weintraub. We had an ecological treasure and once again Pine Island has been shortchanged.”
Among those who supported the restoration of Willow Lake, Commissioner Janes also felt that while the restoration effort was important, the area would never be quite the same.
“The significance of WIllow Lake is, of course, that it was the only natural freshwater ecosystem on Pine Island. Willow Lake no longer resembles the former swamp and wetlands area located on the property near Stringfellow Road,” he said. “I do agree with the restoration plan submitted by South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corp of Engineers which is part of the consent agreement for the environmental violations, however, can it ever be restored to what Mother Nature created over thousands of years? No, but this restoration plan is a good substitute.”
The Willow Lake area covered an estimated 19 plus acres located between Alcorn Street and Stringfellow Road and was the only natural freshwater ecosystem on Pine Island. In addition to the destruction of the lake, also removed were live oaks, willow trees, swamp ferns, grasses, palmettos and other important plants that were part of the original ecosystem and these too will have to be re-planted as part of the agreement. The destruction of Willow Lake and the surrounding wetlands area took place in the fall of 2007 when clearing began for the proposed farm worker housing project which was not approved by the county.
In addition to the restoration of Willow Lake and the county ditch, Weintraub will be paying SFWMD a settlement in the amount of $20,600 for ecological violations as well as $15,600 in civil penalties. Weintraub also will be responsible for staff costs in the amount of $5,000.