After years of work and discussion, leaders of the town of Windermere are breathing a sigh of relief after the Orange County Commission on Tuesday, May 24, passed unanimously an ordinance restricting the use of waters near Bird Island.
The area has drawn much attention since the commission’s original discussion addressing ongoing concerns about the island fizzled without a decision during a March 22 work session. The item subsequently was pulled from the commission’s April 5 agenda.
Now, locals on both sides of the issue have an answer.
As written, the ordinance will designate a portion of Egret Island, also known as Bird Island, located on Lake Butler as a swim area and establish a vessel-exclusion zone prohibiting the operation of vessels within such designated swim areas.
Melissa Lavigne, environmental program supervisor, began the discussion with a brief presentation on the background of the issue, as well as a work session summary, key issues, overview of the ordinance, summary and action requested.
The ordinance discussion garnered a total of 29 speakers, including Windermere Mayor Jim O’Brien, Town Council staff and Windermere Police Chief David Ogden, as well as a multitude of local law enforcement and government agencies, residents, and frequent visitors of the island.
Those in favor of the changes cited concerns over alcohol consumption, swimmers near boats and a reduced wildlife presence. Several deaths and accidents have occurred nearby, including a swimmer who was killed after coming into contact with a boat propeller and another injured when a Jet Ski collided with another boat.
“This boating-exclusion zone would allow us to have people swimming in front of the boats versus in back of the boats,” O’Brien said. “We would never let our children play behind a car. It’s really the same basic principle.”
Although Ogden acknowledged both sides to the issue, he said his main concern is safety.
“Inevitably, over my 35 years of career, I always get this stated to me: ‘What are you going to do when somebody gets hurt or killed?’” Ogden said. “Well, mayor, we’re already here. It’s already happened.”
Those who opposed the ordinance said the lake belongs to everyone and they don’t want to lose their access to the shallow water near the island. They said only a minority of boaters trespass and damage the island’s shoreline.
Several attendees gave their allotted speaking time to Rick Taylor, who has lived on the Butler Chain since 1969 and runs the Bird Island, Butler Chain of Lakes’ Facebook page.
“This is not a safety ordinance, let’s be real,” Taylor said. “It’s more of a dangerous ordinance. It’s also a discriminatory ordinance.”
Dan Murphy, who has been visiting Bird Island since the late 1980s, also opposed the ordinance.
“I represent a large number of people (who) are professionals,” he said. “We have firefighters out there, we have nurses out there, we have police officers out there. We’re not all bad people, so please take that into consideration.”
District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said although there are other further options to consider, the ordinance will be a start.
“It is by no means the one-and-done fix for the problems we’ve seen out there, but I think when we consider the safety issues that come with all those boats clumped in together in inches of water on an island that is specifically designated for conservation … that we really have to start by giving some of those clear boundaries,” Wilson said.
Orange County staff recommended the ordinance take place in two phases.
Phase One will “address safety, natural resources and wildlife issues at Egret Island by designating a new swim area and vessel-exclusion zone at the island.” Phase Two will take place later in 2022 and “bring the ordinance up-to-date to meet state requirements for existing and proposed boating safety zones throughout the county and update language for enforceability of boating safety regulations.”
Wilson said the cost of the work is paid for by a tax assessment to the Windermere Navigation Board.
Commissioners said they may consider further crackdowns on the situation on Bird Island that could include a noise ordinance and even a no-wake zone.