An issue that has been brewing for more than seven years is catching the eye of Orange County officials after pressure from local nonprofit environmental organization Noah’s Notes.
According to Noah’s Notes, around 1,000 animals — averaging more than 100 per year or one every 3.6 days — have been killed since the issue of wildlife mortality along Reams Road was brought to the county’s attention. Don Kendzior, naturalist and president of Noah’s Notes, said the organization’s mission is to preserve wildlife and wildlife habitats. Since 2015, the nonprofit has tracked the rate of wildlife that is struck and killed on Reams Road on an annual basis.
Noah’s Notes began monitoring the rates after Horizon West residents and Disney cast members who regularly commute the road began reporting wildlife being struck and killed in the vicinity of the existing pipe culvert on Reams.
Kendzior said the reports caught his attention because water levels in the conservation areas north of Reams were observed to be regularly above seasonal norms at the time, and he doubted it was a coincidence. He said he believes development has forced wildlife into a smaller area and increased water levels are forcing animals to go over Reams at the point of the box culvert.
“I have a passion for saving nature, and I started the nonprofit, where our mission is saving nature in your backyard,” he said. “This literally is my backyard. This community is my home. Because I have the nature connection and the intuition, I see what’s happening and a lot of these things are bellwethers of what’s to come. If we don’t take short-term actions, we might not even make it to the longer-term actions, because there may be nothing left.”
Reams Road is being widened to improve the level of service, enhance traffic operations and improve safety along the corridor.
The plan is to widen the road to four lanes from Summerlake Park Boulevard to Taborfield Avenue and add a raised median. Also in the construction plans are a 5-foot-wide sidewalk on the south side of the road and a 14-foot-wide multi-use trail on the north side. The project will incorporate drainage improvements, lighting, landscaping and a wildlife crossing.
However, the project is not expected to begin construction until 2026.
As the area continues to develop, flooding has been a prominent concern along Reams, especially after Hurricane Ian — an issue Kendzior believes is directly related to the high wildlife mortality.
Kendzior said the criteria used for evaluating environmental impacts of developments is out of date and does not reflect the impacts of climate change or address and mitigate the impacts of development on wildlife, biodiversity and flooding.
In addition, the historic flow between Lake Reams and Bay Lake has been blocked by development, Reams and canals. The dominant flow is now to the south and southeast while water levels overwhelm the existing culvert pipe between Peachtree Park Court and Greenbank Boulevard.
One prominent example of nearby development is the DevelopCo, now Dream Finders Home, project.
Dream Finders purchased 306 acres, with plans to create The Palms at Windermere, a single-family home community, on Reams. The property — which Dream Finders purchased for $5.87 million — is part of a conservation area consisting of more than 1,200 acres around Lake Reams.
Orange County District 1 Commissioner Nicole Wilson said she has made multiple attempts to stop the project clearing into the wetland. She said she has questioned compliance to multiple conditions of approval.
In addition, Noah’s Notes testified before the Board of County Commissioners in opposition to the development coming to the area with concerns Kendzior believes are now coming to fruition.
“Until we elevate the roadway, flooding will likely be an ongoing issue for sections of Reams Road,” Wilson said. “The Lake Reams Basin drains down toward Reedy Creek, and outfall has increased over the last 10 years due to encroaching development.”
According to the Reams Road Wildlife Mortality Report completed by Noah’s Notes from 2015-19, after consistent reports of high-water levels in surrounding wetlands and animals killed by vehicles on Reams, the organization, with the assistance of the community, monitored water levels in the Lake Reams watershed and logged wildlife killed by vehicles on the road.
The monitoring identified that extensive development permitted around the Lake Reams watershed in the last decade has: significantly affected water levels and flow in surrounding wetlands increasing the probability of flooding; resulted in more than 500 animals, spanning over 18 native species, killed by vehicles on Reams Road; and impacted the integrity of an existing regional wildlife corridor and viability of native wildlife including species of conservation concern.
Kendzior said the findings were presented to Orange County officials on multiple occasions, although no action was taken until the matter was brought to the attention of the public and media in 2017.
He said monitoring showed action taken by the county in late 2017 did not significantly reduce wildlife mortality or increase public safety. Although the organization requested additional action be taken until wildlife crossings, that are part of the planned Reams Road improvement project, are in place, to date Kendzior said no action has been taken other than infrequent random speed monitoring by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
From 2015-19, the study showed more than 500 animals were killed in the three main areas of highest mortality. The area of highest wildlife mortality is at the site of an existing pipe culvert in a zone between Greenbank Boulevard and Peachtree Park Court. Two areas of moderate wildlife mortality are approximately a half-mile east and one mile west of the pipe culvert on Reams. All of these areas are where riparian corridors are blocked by the existing road.
On average, one animal was killed every 6.5 days from 2015-19. Since then, the rate has increased to about 1,000 animals, averaging more than 100 per year or one every 3.6 days. However, Kendzior said actual wildlife mortality is estimated to be 20% higher than documented. Some animals struck by vehicles are either eaten by predators or make it off the road before dying unobserved in the surrounding natural areas.
In addition, more than 18 different species were killed during this period, including one threatened species and one endangered species. Kendzior said some animals are so mutilated from vehicle impacts that species identification is difficult.
In an email sent to Orange County officials in January, Kendzior noted four otters were killed within a few days of Christmas. He said both were breeding pairs, with one female being pregnant.
Resident Leah Emmanouilidis has lived in her home in a community along Reams since 2013. During her time in the area, she said she has seen many wildlife casualties, especially in the segment of Reams between Newmarket Drive and Greenbank Boulevard.
“Recently, there seems to be an increase in the frequency of deaths and the variety of wildlife,” she said. “In just the past four months, I have seen two large bucks … several otters, some birds and even a large turtle.”
Kendzior said Noah’s Notes has called for short-term actions to be implemented now in the interim until the long-term road improvement is done.
These include speed reductions, speed-reduction devices, aggressive speed enforcement and improved signage. Long-term improvements include wildlife crossings, raised roadway, reptile-safe curbing for turtles and alligators, and alterations to water management to restore historic water flow between Lake Reams and Bay Lake.
However, because short-term actions have not yet been met, Kendzior said the organization is accelerating efforts to engage local and national media, as well as national environmental and law partners to secure prompt action.
He said the nonprofit is in the process of filing complaints with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Environmental Protection Agency for the lack of action by Orange County and the species imperiled by such failure.
Although the organization does not have any meetings scheduled, Kendzior said he has been working with Wilson to try to schedule a community meeting to discuss with county staff present.
In an email to Roberto Ng, senior engineer for Orange County public works engineering division, at the beginning of March, Wilson requested a community meeting to review the Reams Road design plan with the residents.
“As you are aware, this road was closed and flooded for an extended period following … (Hurricane) Ian,” Wilson wrote. “During that time, many questions came to my office about the plans for the stretches of road that slice through wetlands. Additionally, we have seen devastating wildlife mortality due to the road’s current speed and the high water levels pushing wildlife out onto the roadway or risk drowning. A one-page flyer with one sentence addressing wildlife crossing does not provide enough detailed communication with these residents and I believe after everything they endured over this last year they deserve more engagement.”
In addition, Wilson said she has been working on efforts to secure additional funding for wildlife-corridor improvements. She said the issue of wildlife mortality is a concern she has across the entire county.
“The difference in roads, I believe, at least out in this district, is that we have an opportunity to go back and look at the design and try to prevent some of this knowing that we haven’t started building yet,” she said. “Our actions are having consequences that will resound through generations. Where we put roads now will impact entire generations of species and what they also bring to our community.”
Kendzior said he was appointed recently to the Orange County Green PLACE Advisory Board where his focus will be on preserving the integrity of regional wildlife corridors and species biodiversity. He said the long-term fix to the bigger issue of environmental preservation is to get as much natural habitat as possible into the public trust through the Green PLACE program or Forever Florida.
Emmanouilidis thinks the community should be aware that wildlife is likely to be present in that area so they can keep a lookout and drive carefully.
“Animals seem to frequently enter the roadway near greenbelts and wetland areas,” she said. “I think community members can and should speak up for road improvements that would help to avoid these accidents, too. It’s heartbreaking to see wildlife dying needlessly. I think a lot of people feel that way. And, I am sure the drivers who inadvertently make contact with animals in the road, injuring or killing them, also feel terrible about it. … I hope Orange County staff responsible for the Reams Road project will take extra care to improve the increasingly undesirable wildlife mortality situation here.”
Kendzior said the public can email wildlife photos or videos to [email protected] with the date, location, type of animal and whether it’s alive or not. This will help the organization track wildlife movement and mortality.