Board will defend boat ramp

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Commissioners will meet with county attorney Heather Encinosa in an executive session on April 16

Staff Writer

Wakulla commissioners will move forward with defending their decision to put a new boat ramp in Lake Ellen.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection granted an exemption to the county in December to build the boat ramp. Property owners Steve Fults and Joseph Avara filed a petition to challenge the decision in January, seeking to have an administrative hearing.
For decades, there was a boat ramp at Lake Ellen. After Fults bought the propeprty last year, the boat ramp was closed because it’s on his private property. That prompted three county commissioners to come up with alternative access to the lake, using the roadway.
“Last week we received some information from the Department of Environmental Protection that the challenge to the county’s permit exemption for the boat ramp that was planned to go at the end of Lake Ellen Drive has been sent to an administrative law judge, which kicks off the formal administrative hearing process,” said County Attorney Heather Encinosa.
“The process now is basically like a trial,” Encinosa said. “There is discovery, and potential written depositions.”
She said there is then a one-day, maybe more, trial in front of an administrative law judge. The administrative law judge will make certain findings of facts, Encinosa said, and will submit a recommended order to the DEP secretary. She went on to say the DEP secretary typically will accept factual conclusions, unless there is competent substantial evidence to overrule them.
“The DEP secretary can take the (judge’s) recommendation under advisement,” Encinosa said. “They’re not bound by them.”
They then will issue a final order.
Encinosa said she brought the issue to the board because it can be an expensive process.
“Since this is a permit, this is one piece of litigation you guys have control over,” Encinosa told the board.
She recommended moving forward, and also scheduling an executive session for immediately preceding the board meeting on April 16.
Commissioner Jerry Moore asked Encinosa if it pertained to more than just access.
Encinosa said it only pertains to the boat ramp.
“DEP in December granted our permit exception, but that has been challenged, so it’s the construction of the boat ramp in that location,” Encinosa added.
Moore asked if the access and boat ramp go together.
“Pretty much,” Encinosa replied.
Commissioners Randy Merritt and Chuck Hess recused themselves from the vote, because they both have property  on Lake Ella.
Commissioners Mike Stewart, Thomas and Moore voted to schedule the executive meeting.
A few Lake Ellen residents showed up to voice their concerns.
Bill Frank said he’s been living in the Lake Ellen community for at least 45 years.
“I’ve been swimming in that lake, fishing in that lake, and my kids did too,” Frank said. “Now we have no pleasure at all getting down there.”
Frank said they’re supposed to have public access on the end, but it’s blocked because of a sign right in the middle.
“You can’t even put a fishing boat down there,” Frank said.
He said he would like to have the sign taken up.
The commissioners said they would have the ordinance changed to have the sign taken up, which is not something they could do right then, but it is something they can discuss.
Ryan McKinnney of Sopchoppy asked the commissioners how long would it take to amend the ordinance to move the sign.
Thomas said it’ll be a two to three month process to amend it.
He said no matter which way they decide to go with the boat ramp, they will work on removing the sign.