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Boat ramp planned: County moves forward with boat ramp at Lake Ellen

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By NANCY IMPERIALE
Staff Writer

Although questions remain, the Wakulla County Commission is moving forward with plans to build a public boat ramp on Lake Ellen.
Commissioners voted 3-0 to order a ramp be designed and submitted to the state Department of Environmental Protection for approval. Commissioners Randy Merritt and Chuck Hess abstained from voting because they own property around the lake.
There has been a public boat ramp around Lake Ellen since 1964. But when Steven Fults bought lakeside property in January, he discovered the boat ramp was on his property. Wanting to park his houseboat on the ramp, and weary of the public trashing his property and being out there at all hours, Fults petitioned the county for relief. In May the county closed the boat ramp. Fults then put up concrete barriers and a fence to keep people out.
Many residents complained, arguing that generations of citizens have been using the ramp and that it should remain open. The county investigated and discovered that it was always the intention to have a public boat ramp at the end of right of way on Lake Ellen Drive, but that the state built the ramp in the wrong place, on private property.
Commissioners have discussed the issue at several meetings, and decided to pursue building another ramp at the end of the road. There have been debates over whether to build a motorized boat ramp or a primitive boat launch, or whether the county is even allowed to build a public boat ramp on right of way into a private lake.
County Attorney Heather Encinosa said her research has revealed that some of these issues will ultimately only be settled by the courts.
“From a legal perspective some of the issues raised by abutting property owners are whether this is a private lake or a sovereign submerged lands, a public lake. There is not any way for us to determine a resolution of that issue absent a court determination,” Encinosa told commissioners. “There are arguments on both sides. I think the county has a strong argument, based upon traditional public access, but there are also arguments on the other side that anyone wishing to challenge this action could take against the county.”
As to whether the county right of way allows public access to the lake, “again, that is up for determination by a court,” Encinosa said. “So I can’t give you a firm opinion. I do think you have very good arguments on the intent of that plat, however. That road was platted for the sole purpose of going to that lake, and it has ‘proposed boat ramp’ written on it. That said, I can’t give you any probability that you would win if you went to court.”
Although commissioners were set to vote on building a primitive boat launch with an 8-foot privacy fence with three gates and another 12-foot bar gate that would be closed at night, all gates and fences were removed before the vote.
Then commissioner Mike Stewart proposed a full ramp, not a launch.
“I have fished in that lake all my life and so have a lot of other citizens in Wakulla and…I think we have a responsibility to try to maintain access to the lake,” Stewart said. “I motion we pursue a motorized launch with a concrete…ramp. Let’s go to DEP and let’s see if DEP approves it. The problem with a hand launch is, it’s a crude way to launch a boat. Let’s do it right, to make it accessible for the citizens. Let’s try. Let’s let them tell us no. Maybe we have an engineer present it in a nice fashion that will look presentable, and at least we try.”
In the end that’s what the commission voted to do.
A handful of residents spoke in favor of the ramp, including a disability advocate from Tallahassee who urged commissioners to ensure whatever ramp they build is accessible.
One resident spoke against the ramp.
“My bedroom’s 10 feet from where y’all are talking about putting a motorized ramp,” said Joe Avara, who lives on the right side of Lake Ellen Drive. “Just to put it in perspective.“