Snowy Plovers. Photo: Kathy Cline.
Good news! On Monday, the Town Council of Fort Myers Beach voted down an ordinance exception that would have allowed boardwalk construction into nesting bird habitat in the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area (CWA).
In 2016, Audubon entered a legal battle to protect Little Estero Island in Southwest Florida. Out-of-state investors wanted to build a private boardwalk over a state-owned lagoon and conservation lands, barely skirting the edge of the critical wildlife area.
Audubon scientists immediately sounded the alarm. When the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) signaled its plans to greenlight this habitat-destroying project, Audubon had to act. Out-of-state investors shouldn’t receive a free pass to harm critical conservation lands with a private boardwalk for vacation rental houses. Instead of applying for an exception to the Town’s ordinance, the applicants appealed to the circuit court system, twice, and lost their appeals.
On Monday, the rental houses went back for a second chance to get their needed local permit. In this critical decision, the council voted on whether to give the renters permission to build the boardwalk, jeopardizing both the birds in the Critical Wildlife Area and vital nesting habitats surrounding it, while incentivizing nearby homeowners to build their own boardwalks.
Audubon staff and 13 volunteers arrived at the council meeting ready to defend the designated protected areas as essential habitat for rare nesting, migrant, and wintering shorebirds and seabirds.
Across three hours of testimony, Audubon, Town staff, and other opponents of the project testified that a boardwalk like this would dramatically alter the habitat by encouraging predators and foot traffic while frightening away nesting and migratory birds. Additionally, a vulnerable boardwalk in this dynamic coastal habitat is destined to become debris in a hurricane, scattered across public lands and the property of adjacent private landowners.
In the end, what truly resonated was that a CWA is meant to protect wildlife in perpetuity, and is not intended to be a public park. The council voted against the boardwalk 3-2.
Audubon Florida will continue to protect the critical nesting habitat on Little Estero Island, as well as across the coast of the Sunshine State.