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Chulakes-Leetz questions 20/20 function in scrub jay debate

By Staff | Nov 20, 2012

During the discussion of the seemingly always-debated scrub jay mitigation at the City Council’s workshop meeting Monday at City Hall, Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz said he doesn’t believe the city should pay for the rebuilding of the birds’ habitat in Alva, but rather it should be done through the county’s Conservation 20/20 Program.

He then questioned whether the fund has a function for Cape Coral and whether the citizenry should foot the half-mill bill to support it, and if the plan was ratified legally.

City business manager Mike Ilczyzyn spoke about scrub jay mitigation after the motion was continued on Nov. 5. He said the money to pay for the $778,000 mitigation would come from the general fund.

Mayor John Sullivan asked if the payment for upkeep on the endangered species’ habitat would continue forever, and if in the event of a natural disaster, the city would have to pay more to restore it again.

Ilczyzyn said the restoration would be done in four phases, with the first costing $390,000 to haul off inhabitable trees like oaks and palms. He also said that if the palms and oaks were to be blown away in a hurricane, it would take down the lines of sight and could be beneficial to the species and habitat.

Chulakes-Leetz then asked if the 20/20 fund could pay for the mitigation.

“The taxpayers have paid $71.5 million into 20/20 since 1997 and I’m not convinced it shouldn’t pay for this,” he said. “I would like a written document showing what 20/20 can and can’t pay for.”

Chulakes-Leetz also questioned why in the 15 years of the program it has bought only one property Cape Coral, and if the 20/20 was legally adopted.

“It was voted down in 1997. Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach chose not to participate,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “The Board of County Commissioners moved to a different method.”

City Attorney Dolores Menendez told Chulakes-Leetz that 20/20 monies went toward land acquisition, not mitigation or improvements. Director of Community Development Paul Dickson confirmed that.

However, Chulakes-Leetz said that the original ordinance 96-12 (which was repealed and replaced with ordinance 05-17 in 2005) stated that its goal was to protect and preserve natural habitat, thus falling under 20/20 jurisdiction.

Ordinance 05-17 created the Lee County Conservation Land Acquisition and Stewardship Advisory Committee, providing for criteria relating to implementation of county ad valorem taxes to “purchase and improve environmentally sensitive lands.”

Ilczyzyn warned that “mitigation is not the same at restoration.”

“The ordinance is self-explanatory. I want in writing that they can’t or choose not to help us,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “With $71 million it’s a reasonable request.”

“Ultimately, will Lee County help us, yes or no?” City Manager John Szerlag said. “We don’t need a 48-page legal response, just a yes or no.”

“I have seen $71 million of taxpayer money go toward less than one acre of land in Cape Coral. That’s an expensive piece of land,” Chulakes-Leetz said. “That’s $5.5 million of Cape Coral tax money going to the county with no return on investment.”

Chulakes-Leetz said the benefit would be that the city wouldn’t have to find $800,000 to pay for the mitigation and that the BOCC would gain support from the city’s taxpayers because it would show the county has its back.

On Nov. 5, a vote on scrub jay mitigation was delayed by council because the board wanted to look into paying to improve scrub jay habitat in Alva from the general fund rather than increasing construction fees or introduce other assessments.

The mitigation comes as a result of plans to build Festival Park on 215 acres north of Pine Island Road, where scrub jay families have been found.