Why was vote on Cayo Costa plan pulled? State is mum; advocates fear for island’s environment

Island advocates want the state to keep tour boats on the north end…

Why was vote on Cayo Costa plan pulled? State is mum; advocates fear for island's environment 1
Why was vote on Cayo Costa plan pulled? State is mum; advocates fear for island's environment 2

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A Cayo Costa Island homeowner weighs in on tourism impact on parts of the island

A Cayo Costa homeowner weighs in on tourism impact on parts of the island

Andrew West, Fort Myers News-Press

With no explanation, the Florida Department of Environmental has pulled Cayo Costa State Park’s management plan from a June meeting at which it was to have been voted upon. The plan has drawn heat from park supporters opposed to continued commercial use of a dock at the island’s southern end.

They say twice-daily dockings by large excursion boats damage sea grass, while the raked, root-pruned path used by their thousands of monthly passengers creates a channel through which water could rush in a storm, slicing the 9-mile-long barrier island in two.

The agency sent an email to stakeholders saying, “Cayo Costa State Park’s Unit Management Plan will not be presented during the June 11, 2021 Acquisition and Restoration Council meeting.”

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The council must approve updates to the plan, the email continues, “which will provide an opportunity for public input … from which environmental stewardship and visitor service decisions will be made.”

Though that might be read to imply the agency would gather more public input, several calls and emails to the department’s communications staff asking for an explanation went unanswered.

Of the island’s nearly 3,000 acres, only about 40 are in private hands, with the rest making up the park.

More than 2,100 people have signed a petition asking the state to stop allowing boatloads of tourists dock twice daily on the bay side of “The Narrows,” a thin strip of land at the island’s southern end.

To be clear: They’re not asking that excursion boats stop coming to the island. They just want them to use the northern end, which already has a ranger station, bathrooms, a larger deep-water dock and a tram to the beach.

Letting visitors use The Narrows endangers fragile dunes, sea turtle nesting zones, shorebird habitat and rare native plant communities, advocates say, while the 45-plus-foot Captiva Cruises tour boats that bring them from the mainland tear up seagrass beds and prop-dredge sandy holes, especially at low tide.

Captiva Cruises’ lawyer, to which the company has referred The News-Press, did not immediately return a request for comment. The company also declined to comment for a report earlier this month.

As recently as last year, park staff worried about such damage; in an earlier version of the plan that was to have been voted on in June staffers wrote that the impacts “(indicated) the need for closure of this site …. Concession ferry access will continue to be facilitated through the docks at Pelican Bay,” the larger, northern dock site.

‘Destroyed by human impact’

The controversy stems from a dock on land sold to the state by Arcadia physician Larry Garrett more than four decades ago. When he did, Garrett clearly understood it was to be preserved, he wrote to the department last month. “The fact that you are allowing the very land you are supposed to protect to be destroyed by human impact when it was sold for preservation is unacceptable.”

Garrett’s land contained a small dock that was destroyed  in 2004 by Hurricane Charley. Twelve years later, the state rebuilt it – improperly, opponents say.

The reconstructed dock and decking has allowed the influx of visitors that advocates say is damaging The Narrows.

One who’s contacted the state is Fort Myers engineer Kevin Shimp, who in a letter to the DEP earlier this month, wrote that the situation “reeks of governmental abuse of power and back-door deals that used to be common, but I thought were a relic of the worst of the old days.”

Among Shimp’s concerns are what appears to be rule violations. “As a civil engineer I did some further regulatory and permitting related discovery. It seems the Army Corps of Engineers authorized the ‘installation of three 8-inch diameter pilings’ and the ‘reframing and re-decking of 640 square feet of an existing boardwalk structure.’ South Florida Water Management District issued an exemption from an Environmental Resource Permit for the ‘replacement or repair of existing docks and piers, including mooring piles, provided the existing structure is still functional or has been rendered non-functional within the last year by a discrete event such as storm, flood, accident, or fire.’

Florida Statutes requires the dock to “be in the same location and of the same configuration and dimensions as the dock or pier being repaired.”

It’s not.

Shimp continues, “It seems the permittee, the State of Florida Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund, was either unaware of the conditions of the former dock or purposely misled the permitting entities. The end dock boat landing has not existed since Friday the 13th of August 2004 when Hurricane Charley’s category 4 eyewalls crossed at the Narrows. … Further, over that 11-year time the mangroves had done much to retake their former claim to the trail as the trail was barely passable in some locations. The above statute requires that no aquatic plants or native trees be removed.”

Shimp says he hasn’t researched the penalties that would be imposed if a private owner or contractor were to violate the rules in this way, “but it is safe to say they would be significant.”

What bothers him, he writes, is that it “appears a private entity is using publicly owned land as its own private access point as a revenue source while making every effort to shut out the public from the use of our public property. They are doing so after constructing a dock and boardwalk facility that circumvented the federal, state, and county permitting process. They are continuing to add piling (two more have appeared for mooring large vessels) to the facility with no permitting and are actively prop dredging the area for deeper access for large vessels where none historically existed. And, most amazingly, they have done all of the above with the apparent approval and participation of the FDEP, the agency that regulates submerged public land use and the permitting of such use,” he wrote.

“I generally believe the State of Florida is privileged to have good government and this is very bad government.”

Now, with the vote postponed and the agency not saying when it might be rescheduled, advocates like longtime environmental consultant Dick Anderson worry there’s no end in sight. “The problem with delaying the vote on the plan is that it allows Captiva Cruises to continue using the dock, and it allows the damage to continue.

“And all the hush-hush is bizarre. They’re supposed to be working for us.”

Why was vote on Cayo Costa plan pulled? State is mum; advocates fear for island's environment 3


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