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Hearing on Chiquita Lock removal wraps up

By Staff | May 15, 2019

A legal challenge to the state intent to issue a permit for the removal of the Chiquita Lock concluded Friday following a third day of testimony from witnesses for the city and rebuttal witnesses.

Administrative Law Judge Francine M. Ffolkes continued to hear testimony in the challenge filed by a coalition that includes the Matlacha Civic Association, two residents of Matlacha, one resident of St. James City and four residents of the city of Cape Coral.

The plaintiff group contests the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s notice that it will issue the city of Cape Coral the permit to remove the water control structure.

The group challenging the lock’s removal contends the water control structure – or a new one – is needed to protect water quality.

At the Friday’s hearing extension, Dr. Anthony Janecki was among those who testified.

A representative for the petitioners, Michael Hannon, cross examined Janecki, who, in answer, said he didn’t know for sure where the nutrients in the water were going, nor was a study done on where nitrogen is flowing out of the canal.

Rebuttal witness John Cassani, the Caloosahatchee Waterkeeper, said he believed the removal of the lock would be detrimental to Matlacha Pass, which has been designated as an outstanding waterway by the EPA.

Ecologist Kevin Erwin contended that Janecki incorrectly stated that mangroves alone filtered the nitrogen out of the water, when there are many forms of vegetation. He was unable to determine the health of the estuary.

FDEP issued its Notice of Intent last November to issue a permit for the removal of the Chiquita Lock, which was built during the city’s initial growth to protect the outer waters of Charlotte Harbor, but is now considered by city leaders to have outlived its usefulness.

The city and FDEP say the lock’s removal will improve boater safety and wait times while not significantly impacting water quality.

Petitioners contend that removal will result in a degradation of water quality, a reduction in property values, danger to endangered species such as the manatee, lower water levels and silting in the canals that would require costly dredging, vessel navigation issues, blue-green algae invasion, seawall failure and quality of life.

In two weeks, both sides will meet with Ffolkes to finalize their statements. Ffolkes will review those statements and make her recommendation to the Secretary of the DEP, Noah Valenstein, for his ruling.

Carl Deigert, president of the Matlacha Civic Association, said he is confident the petitioners made a strong case and have the science on their side.

“We expect to be validated in our petition to keep the lock in place,” Deigert said, adding the best-case scenario would be that not only would the lock stay, but also damages could be sought to force the city to rebuild the Ceitus Barrier.

Hannon was also pleased and said the Cape Coral City Council should call the city’s three lawyers before the council and ask them to give them a full report on what happened during the three days of testimony.

“If they don’t do that. I’ll be happy to give them a full report because they need to know,” Hannon said. “We have a judge who has taken a lot of evidence and she will make a recommendation and I’m confident she’ll do a great job.”

The process to a final determination could take anywhere from 45 days to two months, Hannon said in an earlier interview.

Either side could then challenge Valenstein’s decision in court.