Loud, alcohol-infused parties, illegal Jet Skis and littering have long turned Egret Island — also known as Bird Island — into the center of much discussion in Windermere.
| 11:59 a.m. September 2, 2020
Just off the shore where Fernwood Park sits in Windermere, an island has long been the center of notoriety throughout the town’s history. Egret Island — also known as 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.
Tales of underage alcohol use, partiers leaving trash and the illegal use of rented Jet Skis and other watercraft are local lore, said Windermere resident and activist Richard “Dick” Radkewich.
“It’s unbelievable how this thing keeps going,” Radkewich said. “The only thing that has changed is that the culture has changed. People say, ‘I have the right to get an $88,000 Ski-naughton, put the speakers up, take my clothes off and dance in the shallows of Bird Island.’ I’m not against having fun. I’m worried people are going to get killed, and they are.”
JET SKIS, BOAT RAMPS AND PARTIES
One afternoon in July, a man on a Jet Ski was involved in a one-man crash by the island.
“A Jet Ski came flying around the corner of the island so close he nailed a nice boat that was anchored up,” said Chad McGhee in a post in the Bird Island, Butler Chain of Lakes Facebook group. “There were dozens of people swimming on the other side of the boat that probably would have been killed or injured if it weren’t for the boat taking the hit.”
The incident occurred a little over a year after Nickaloy Dunstan Thomas was hit and killed by a boat off Bird Island.
In this latest incident, the Jet Ski began to sink before it was towed, said Windermere Councilwoman Liz Andert — also the council liaison for the Butler Chain of Lakes Advisory Committee. But before it was recovered and taken, McGhee said a conversation took place between the man who crashed the Jet Ski and responding officers. The man claimed he had rented the Jet Ski and had no idea how to drive it. Then, a woman appeared to claim it was hers and that she had let him borrow it.
The semantics may not seem important, but they are indicative of one of two issues plaguing the Butler Chain for years: the illegal watercraft rentals and the illegal use of the town’s boat ramp.
“We do not allow commercial activity from our town-owned ramp,” Andert said. “If somebody is doing that, that is something that is happening because a resident is doing it themselves illegally — maybe knowingly or unknowingly — or they are giving their key and their access to a non-resident, which, we as a town council, just passed an ordinance that allows for greater enforcement and penalty is found to be doing that.”
The boat ramp at Fernwood Park is the only ramp owned by the town. The ramp on Lake Down, run by Orange County, allows for charter business but not rentals — and a resident wanting to boat on Butler Lake must obtain a key for the town’s ramp.
Another concern is the human toll on the island itself.
“What’s happened is that the nature of recreation boating has changed,” Radkewich said. “This isn’t recreation boating. This is people using a boat to go some place, form a flotilla and engage in party-like activities.”
While some cases of possibly rented Jet Skis and loose keys still happen, another concern for people like Radkewich comes from the human toll on the island itself.
Pictures of partiers hanging by the island are often followed by photos of trash — including beer bottles among other things — and it’s part of a culture shift, Radkewich said.
“I can surmise that it happens out there — I drive by the island all the time, and I live on the lakes,” Andert said. “We used to — when I first moved here — take my kids out to the lakes and anchor next to Bird Island. … We used to go out there, but it’s way too dangerous (now).”
The issues not only are affecting the island but also the town, Mayor Jim O’Brien said.
“People will return from the island, and they’ll have been drinking all day,” he said. “So when they get to the park to get their cars, we have issues there. We’ve had young people who have had alcohol poisoning, and there’s been altercations and different things like that.”
JURISDICTIONS AND PROBLEMS
Here’s the rub: The town of Windermere has no jurisdiction of the water or Bird Island. In 1958, the island was deeded to the Florida Audubon Society by Frank Chase and the Chase Company. Meanwhile, the waters are under the control of the state, although Orange County was granted authority to enforce law and patrol the area. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has limited numbers to send out on patrols, Andert said.
The Butler Marine Patrol is compromised of officers from the FWC, Florida Park Control and the Orange County Sheriff's Office, and funded by the Municipal Service Benefit Unit/Municipal Service Benefit Unit. Meanwhile the Town of Windermere has a separate off-duty shoreline patrol that has been approved for funding by the MSBU/MSTU — in addition to regular monies provided to the Butler Marine Patrol.
“There is a good amount of money in that MSBU,” Andert said. “If our residents had more awareness and had a say, I think they would probably prefer that some of that money go toward the Sheriff’s Office having more patrol presence out there.”
The Butler Chain of Lakes Advisory Board has an average budget of $7 million, with $203,000 going toward the general expense allotted to the Butler Marine Patrol and patrolling activities.
At one point, the town researched annexing the island.
“The reality is that the island itself, and the amount of people … using the lake and using the island, has become a burden on the town,” O’Brien said. “We don’t have the financial ability to provide a police officer just for the boat ramp without the assistance of those off-duty funds, and we’ve worked in partnership with FWC and the Butler Chain of Lakes Advisory Board for a long time to be allowed to use some of those funds to better enforce the rules and regulations.”
A CALL FOR SOLUTIONS
Orange County District 1 Commissioner Betsy VanderLey brought forward the subject in the County Commission meeting Tuesday, Sept. 1.
“The party has gotten out of control,” she said. “(But) we have potentially crafted a solution that will allow residence to enjoy the lake and eliminate the party atmosphere that has become so increasingly dangerous.”
The solutions — outlined by Liz Johnson of the county’s Environmental Protection Division — include creating a designated swimming area and a limit on the rafting of boats.
“If you can just visualize, it’s an area that is cordoned off through the use of waterway markers — buoys were recommended rather than posts,” Johnson said. “It’s basically an area that allows people to continue to enjoy the recreational beauty and services that the Butler Chain of Lakes offers, but it requires that the boats are moored off from a certain distance from this designated swimming area.
“Additionally we were doing some research and we discovered that there could be some rafting,” she said. “This mechanism also allows us to address maximum rafting numbers of vessels — like five boats rafted together with a certain distance between boats, just to increase the safety.”
The designated swimming area would require the submission for a new waterway marker permit and submit an ordinance for the swimming area — a process that could take six to nine months. Once approved by the FWC, it would take around three months to select a vendor to create and install the buoys.
Along with the permits, Chapter 8 of the Orange County Code would need to be updated and revised. That process would take an estimated six to 12 months, Johnson said.
The process — while lengthy — is necessary, VanderLey said.
The County Commission approved VanderLey’s request unanimously.