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West Orange Times & Observer Saturday, Apr. 30, 2022 3 months ago

No date set to revisit Bird Island ordinance

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Ordinance that would have addressed concerns pertaining to Bird Island in Windermere, results in no action by the Orange County Commission.
by: Annabelle Sikes Staff Writer

After an ordinance that would have addressed concerns pertaining to Bird Island in Windermere resulted in no action by the Orange County Commission, Windermere leaders, residents and District 1 County Commissioner Nicole Wilson are left without answers — and without resolution.

 The County Commission was scheduled to discuss the issue at 9 a.m. at its March 22 workshop meeting, but it was delayed for more than seven hours.

At the end of the workshop, the County Commission took no action.

“It just died,” Windermere Town Manager Robert Smith said. “It’s pretty much in limbo at this point. We have no idea when it’s coming back for discussion. We just want them to address it. If they’re not in favor of it, fine, but at least discuss it at a meeting as far as the ordinance itself.”

At its April 12 meeting, the Windermere Town Council directed Smith to draft a letter to the County Commission urging it to redress the issue.

But to date, nothing has changed.

COUNTY CONTRADICTIONS

As written, the ordinance would designate a portion of Lake Butler as a swim area and establish a vessel-exclusion zone prohibiting the operation of vessels within such designated swim area. 

The ordinance includes an effective date of April 1. But no action was taken during the March workshop, and it has not yet been rescheduled for discussion.

Wilson wants to know why.

“The Boats and Water Safety Ordinance update has been researched and vetted for over a year, with input from the (town) of Windermere, Butler Chain of Lakes Advisory Board, FWC, Audubon Society, (Orange County Sheriff’s Office), Windermere Police Department and affected residents,” Wilson wrote in an April 19 email to Environmental Protection Division Manager David Jones. “There have been multiple public engagements, well publicized and well-attended public meetings and countless hours of work by your staff and my office.”

Wilson said the item was pulled from the April 5 County Commission agenda. She asked for the Rule of Procedure invoked to substantiate the action. She also asked members of Orange County Administration to give District 1 residents a date for an adoption hearing so they could plan to be in attendance and support the update.

“If an entire year’s work by EPD and all other stakeholders is in limbo because a single board member has questions but chooses not to attend the stakeholder and public meetings on this topic, I think it would be prudent to explain his authority to do so,” Wilson said. 

Hannah Gutner, policy aide to Wilson, confirmed the board member to whom Wilson was referring was Mayor Jerry Demings. She said the Bird Island piece of the agenda was removed “at the mayor’s discretion.”

“We have not received any information from the mayor’s office about the justification for removing this item,” Gutner said in an email. 

With the summer boating season approaching, Wilson said she is concerned the delays will result in an increased public safety risk.

Demings did not respond to requests for comment by press time Tuesday.

Denise Cochran, media and communications spokesperson at the EPD, responded on the mayor’s behalf. 

“Given public safety and other concerns and alternative solutions raised by members of the public during the March 22, 2022, Board of County Commissioners meeting, additional time is required for county staff to address the issues that were raised, including research and coordination with law enforcement agencies and other stakeholders,” Cochran said in a prepared statement.

Cochran said the intent is to bring the ordinance back to the board in the “near future.” 

The EPD said it is working to find a date when the item can be fully discussed and that it will provide public notice of the new hearing date as soon as it is confirmed.

DIFFERING OPINIONS

Bird Island is only 10 acres. Its only inhabitants are birds and other wildlife, but the human intrigue and stories surrounding the island are plentiful.

For years, tales of underage alcohol use, partiers leaving trash and the illegal use of rented Jet Skis and other watercraft have become local lore. The area also has been the site of fatal crashes.

Rick Taylor said he has lived on the Butler Chain since 1969 and frequents Bird Island often. Although he agrees the crowds have increased over the years, he believes the ordinance “will do nothing to curtail the crowds.”

“If people ‘on’ the island is an issue, placing a black chainlink fence would greatly stop that,” he said. “If loud music is the issue, this ordinance will only make matters worse. If boats are required to anchor farther out, it only makes sense they will play the music louder. If safety is the issue, this ordinance will only make it more unsafe as boats will be deeper and people will be required to swim between anchored boats. It appears that this ordinance, while good intentioned, by no means will help what it is intended for.”

However, some argue that the county should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

“The proposed ordinance may not be perfect, but it is a start, and it is time to make a start,” Linda Wells said. “These delays are ridiculous and seem directed at avoiding the issue(s) rather than happenstance. Let’s make a start!”

A Windermere resident, who wishes to remain anonymous due to negative interactions with the Bird Island crowd, sent a letter voicing her concerns to the commissioners March 21. She has lived adjacent to the Windermere boat ramp for 34 years and in close proximity to Lake Butler and Bird Island. She said the area used to be pristine and tranquil but has now progressively changed, noting the parties with loud noise, drinking, littering, trespassing and more. 

“I applaud and totally support the proposed ordinance to establish a no-boat zone around this area,” she said in the email. “I would prefer an even more extensive area of restriction and would hope such would be enacted if the need arises. I expect that you will receive strong opposition from people who are organized on social media and wish to continue business-as-usual on the island. I am asking you to consider the longstanding and very real concerns that prompted this measure: protection of an established wildlife sanctuary, safety of all persons on (and off) the water and the rights of everyone to enjoy the lakes in a reasonable manner.”

BIRD ISLAND ORDINANCE

The Board of County Commissioners finds it to be in the interest of public health, safety and welfare to designate a portion of Lake Butler as a swim area and establish a vessel-exclusion zone prohibiting the operation of vessels within such designated swim area.

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Annabelle Sikes is a staff writer at the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. She graduated in May 2021 from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in sociology.  Her past...

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