Environmental law firm Earthjustice yesterday announced that it has filed suit against the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, alleging that the agency “illegally held closed-door meetings to craft a plan which would cut off the public’s boating access to part of Fisheating Creek in Glades County” and therefore violated state open meeting requirements.
According to Earthjustice, the state has advised a plan to “build roads through wetlands and dump 50 million pounds of sand into Fisheating Creek to permanently block the public navigation channel.”
“It’s unconscionable to see a state agency – which runs on our tax dollars – illegally bar the public from meetings which should be public. It’s even worse when the state agency is behind closed doors hatching a plan to let a politically powerful agricultural company illegally shut off ordinary people’s rights to run their boats down a public waterway,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest in a press release.
Earthjustice filed suit in Leon County’s Second Judicial Circuit on behalf of Save Our Creeks and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, two groups that were part of a 1997 suit over Fisheating Creek. After agribusiness giant Lykes Brothers fenced off the creek’s channel, making it nearly impossible for boaters to go down the creek, the conservationists sued and won, with a jury concluding that Florida law provides that the navigation channel should remain open to the public. As part of that 1997 settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agreed to keep Fisheating Creek’s channel open for public access.
But according to Earthjustice, the agency “ignored its duty, and, instead, let a portion of the creek fill in with exotic vegetation and overgrowth.”
“The problem here is that the FWCC didn’t do its job keeping the navigation channel open for the public,” said Guest. “They were required to do it, they had money appropriated by the state Legislature to do it, but they just didn’t.”
In 2008, conservationists threatened to sue again, unless the commission would keep the creek open to the public. The agency brought in a boat fitted with a blade used to clear boat channels in vegetation-choked waterways, but the boat (also known as “The Agitator”) proved problematic, leading to a new water flow pattern that drained too much water out of the creek and marsh.
That, alleges Earthjustice, is when the commission convened a technical working group that examined a number of alternatives, but “shut the public out.” According to the firm, at least one representative of the public tried to attend a meeting, but was told to leave.
The commission has since announced a plan to build roads and staging areas across the marsh and then backfill the navigation channel with 50 million pounds of sand.
“The FWCC’s plan is a shameless giveaway to Lykes Brothers and a kick in the gut to the public. People have a legal right to use this waterway and they also have a right to give input on the state’s plan to spend their tax dollars,” Guest said.
In a statement, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Director of Community Relations Doc Kokol said this:
Since we have not received the suit yet, we cannot comment on the specific elements alleged, but we adamantly disagree with the perception of wrong doing that the press release issued today by Earthjustice implies. The Commission has a long standing history of transparency. We take this issue very seriously and will continue to work diligently to resolve the issue.