One reservoir got a thumbs up and another got a six-week delay near the Lee County line.
Charlotte County residents living near both of these projects are putting up a fight. They accuse both government and private developers of depleting their water supply in the name of two distinct goals: saving the environment or selling water to the city of Cape Coral.
Despite resident objections, the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals gave the OK unanimously last week to a state environmental project requiring a reservoir next to the Charlotte Correctional Institution on Zemel Road. That project is part of a 10-year plan to restore the natural water flow across U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 from state-owned Babcock and Webb wildlife management areas to other wildlife areas and Charlotte Harbor.
The flow of water across open lands has been altered for decades, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission consultant Susan Ray told the zoning board. It has drowned out native wildlife and trees to the east while depleting fishing stock in Charlotte Harbor due to lack of fresh water,
A day after the zoning board hearing, county commissioners were more sympathetic to the same residents in their fight against a private developer, Neslund Family Partnership LTD II. That developer also needs a reservoir, this one to sell water to drought-stricken Cape Coral. Commissioners unanimously ordered a six-week delay — enough time for the county and developer to establish another six test wells in locations of the county’s choice. The goal would be to determine more convincingly whether the existing mine and water sales to Cape Coral could threaten neighbors’ wells.
For both projects, residents live near each other but on both sides of the highways just north of the two reservoirs. They live on large, rural residential lots. Many raise livestock commercially or as a hobby. They say both projects failed to provide answers to their questions.
“They keep stating that there’s scientific evidence, yet none of us have seen it,” Kim Hite of Jasmine Drive told commissioners.
“You have us between a perfect storm for not having enough water,” said Shelia Palmore of Oil Well Road, at the zoning board hearing on the state environmental project. She was referring to both reservoir projects and how they could ruin the rural lifestyles people have chosen. “What’s going to happen to all that when all our water is sucked away?”
“Anybody that is for this project has lost their mind,” said Carlton DePriest, also of Oil Well Road. “If everybody put their facts on the table, I wouldn’t be this upset.”
Commissioners also accused the private developer, Neslund and the gravel pit company there, Southwest Aggregates, of failing to inform the county while they sending millions of gallons of water a day to Cape Coral.
“Did they ever contact us and say, ‘Hey, is this OK to do this?’” Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch asked consultants to the Neslund project.
Consultant Dan DeLisi said transfer of water between counties is handled by the state’s water districts, in this case, Southwest and South Florida water management districts, which meet right at this location.
“It happens all the time,” he said.
Southwest Aggregates sent its water to down the grassy borders of U.S. 41 to Cape Coral in 2017 and again this year during emergency dry spells. When they decided to formalize an agreement with Cape Coral, the city contacted Charlotte County. The county said property owner Neslund would have to apply for new zoning, hence the late notice to commissioners.
After hours of debate, Commissioner Ken Doherty asked Southwest Aggregate consultant Gary Bain if he had data proving that the gravel mine and reservoir project were not affecting the neighbors’ properties.
“That’s a tough one,” Bain said. “I don’t know the status of their wells.”
Commissioner Joe Tiseo proposed that the developer set up more wells in locations that the county chooses. His board and the developer agreed.
“Let’s see what all that data looks like,” Tiseo said.
“What we want to do is get at the truth,” Deutsch said.