December 19, 2007


Water district offers settlement to developer

Wrecked Pine Island’s Willow Lake for tree farm

By Ryan Lengerich


A developer who wiped out a natural water habitat in Pine Island would have to pay a fine and restore 6 acres where Willow Lake once existed, under settlement terms offered by the South Florida Water Management District.


In mid-October, as Russell Weintraub and his business, Treeco, cleared ground for a palm tree farm, they went past boundaries approved by the South Florida Water Management District.


The developer has offered to restore 1.45 acres he admits he should not have cleared.


Pine Island resident, former attorney and environmental activist Phil Buchanan has data he said proves the area is 6 acres.


The water district, in a settlement offer dated Dec. 14, agreed and said Weintraub must restore 6 acres of wetlands and pay $40,100 in fines, or face the district in court.


“I am happy, everybody has done their job,” Buchanan said Tuesday. “The data is just overwhelming, the only person that said it didn’t exist was the land owner.”


Weintraub has until this weekend to accept or reject the deal. His attorney Cami Corbett said she has not seen the investigation documents or spoken with the district, and will not make a decision until she has done so.


Corbett voiced frustration the settlement terms were made public before she and Weintraub met with water district officials.


“The district has very recently changed their mind about how they are handling it,” said Corbett. “I think it is political, I think the commissioners are pressuring the district.”


Lee County commissioners have expressed outrage, but have no jurisdiction over the wetlands.


Three weeks ago, water district spokeswoman Susan Sanders said the district gave the developer the right to clear the ground for the tree farm, except for the 1.45 acres. That’s still the case, Sanders said Tuesday. But plans are also filed with the county for migrant farm worker housing on 15 acres adjacent to what was Willow Lake.


Due to those plans, Sanders said the developer should have applied for an Environmental Resource Permit and, had it done so, the water district would not have allowed the developer to clear the remaining portion of the lake.


Corbett said the plans have been adjusted and will not impact the area, so the permit is unnecessary.


She said the housing plans were filed in 2006, and is unsure why the water district would suddenly use the project in its ruling. Those are all details she wants to speak with water district officials about.


“I can’t advise my client to accept (the settlement) because don’t have appropriate information to find out how they arrived at that,” Corbett said.


Behind the scenes, the Army Corps of Engineers continues to analyze the issue. Their decision could further decide the lake’s size and how much Weintraub must restore. Corps spokeswoman Cynthia Ovdenk said a final decision is near.


Buchanan is looking forward to the restoration.


“The real crunch will be when we come down to the mitigation or restoration effort,” he said. “This developer is going to have to come in with a pretty strong restoration plan.”