Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Carmel on the Case: Neighbors Battle Over Bay Access
There's a major brou-ha-ha brewing in the normally laid back Florida Keys. It's all about manatees and property values and access to open water. Investigative Reporter Carmel Cafiero is - "On The Case."
(WSVN) -- "This is Gulliver, put your nose up dear," says homeowner Paula Easevoli to Carmel, introducing her to a manatee, as he approaches.
"He's an injured manatee," says Carmel.
"But Gulliver is very friendly."
This close encounter of the manatee kind took place in Key Largo...in a little bit of paradise called South Lake in Buccaneer Point.
It's a safe haven for manatees who visit so often they're known by name.
But change is in the wind.
Currently - a creek connects the lake to Florida Bay.
It gives boat access to open water for homeowners and is a way in and out for manatees and fish.
But the state has issued a permit to plug the creek up.
Easevoli says, "If they close this lake, this will become a mosquito infested pond which it never was."
Paula Easevoli is one of eleven homeowners fighting in court to keep the creek open.
So far - they've lost, but they have won a temporary hold.
HomeownerJack Althoff says, "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand that we're gonna suffer lowering values."
The owner of this house - who says he also owns the creek area - has been granted a permit to fill it in.
"Here's a Monroe County ruling," says Lee Egland, who has a kitchen counter lined with legal decisions in the case.
He says when he bought his property in 1986 - there was no creek.
Lee says, "It was dead level, all the way across. There was no creek. Water would pass at high tide."
Egland says his neighbors dug the creek.
Fill and rock sit on his property, waiting for final court clearance to close the opening.
"Why close it?" asks Carmel.
"Because, if I don't, I will be fined ,and I will be criminally and civilly prosecuted the DEP, Army Corps of Engineers, EPA," says Lee.
The State Department of Environmental Protection say filling the creek will return it to its natural condition - closed.
Tania McMillan of the Department of Environmental Protection says,"It's a good idea because it was naturally a mangrove slough, and it was dredged without authorization from the department."
But people who have lived on the lake for many, many years insist the natural condition is - open.
HomeownerCarol Grove says, "We were sold homes on an open waterway - access to the bay."
"Well, I have people tell me -- that's been here for 11 years," says Carmel.
"That's cause they want it, they want it to be," says Egland.
"So they are not telling me the truth?"
"Exactly, they are not."
Official maps give conflicting information... some show the opening to the bay - others do not.
Stuart Marr was the original developer.
He says the creek was there when he dug the lake, in the early '70's.
"When you started this project was there an opening to Florida Bay?" asks Carmel.
"There was the creek on the South Lake going into Florida Bay," answers Marr.
"It was already existing?"
"Oh yes - yes."
Existing or not, homeowners also don't understand why anybody would want to damage such a healthy lake.
They say its full of fish and the manatees obviously love it.
But D-E-P says no water tests have been done.
"Wouldn't you think one of the things to look at is to see if there is a problem with water quality?" Carmel asksMcMillan. She does not give a reply. "Yes? No?," Carmel prods. "I don't understand why the department would not investigate that point."
"The idea is to restore the mangrove slough," offers McMillan.
Meanwhile, experts say the manatees have a lot of habitat options in the Key, if the lake should be closed.But, for property owners - change won't be quite so easy.
For more information or if you have a story for Carmel:
Call her in Dade at 305-627-CLUE
Or in Broward at 954-921-CLUE.