Audubon Center for Birds of Prey

EagleWatch Volunteer Defends Nest on Agricultural Land at Risk of Development

Cheryl Merz was one of more than 130 people in line for public comment at the 11-hour county commission meeting last month.

In eastern Orange County, a residential development plan was suspended when EagleWatch volunteers and other concerned community members voiced their dissent in an 11-hour county commission meeting last month.

A housing developer had been attempting since as early as 2014 to have the rural agricultural land in the Econ River basin, formerly known as Rybolt Ranch, rezoned for residential use, paving the way for the construction of 1,800 homes. According to Charles Lee, Audubon Florida's director of advocacy, Orange County's own Comprehensive Plan makes an effort to avoid increasing the population density of that area.

Then, there was the eagle nest sitting high in a tree in the middle of it all.

Advocating for Eagles

EagleWatch Volunteer Carlos Perez found the nest in November 2020. From that season on, Perez has been the nest’s assigned monitor as part of Audubon Florida’s EagleWatch program, which seeks to study nesting habits and successes of Bald Eagles in Florida.

In December 2023, EagleWatch Program Manager Shawnlei Breeding learned that the land the nest was on was up for rezoning. and that an Orange County Planning and Development meeting was scheduled to discuss the proposal for development. Perez was unable to attend the meeting, so Breeding recruited Cheryl Merz, an EagleWatch county coordinator, to attend instead. At the meeting, Merz asked about the nest and learned the developers were not aware of it, but they agreed to investigate further.

The planning and development committee voted in favor of the development, with the developer promising to adjust their plans to account for the nest before the proposal went before the Orange County Board of County Commissioners in January.

Gathering the Evidence

In the intervening weeks between the planning and zoning and the commission meetings, Breeding and the EagleWatch volunteers worked together to compile documentation of the nest to present at the next meeting. University of Central Florida student and EagleWatch volunteer Alexandra Barath also visited the site to photograph the nest. On January 20, she photographed one adult sitting in the nest, and another perched on a branch above, indicating the nest was indeed active.

At the January commission meeting, the developer presented an updated proposal including the eagle nest, but stated that the nest was not active. During the public comment period, Merz was among more than 130 people given time to speak. When she finally stepped in front of the commission at 8 p.m., she used her allotted one minute to show undeniable proof of an active eagle nest.

Proof of Life

Barath’s photo, dated just three days before the hearing, proved the nest’s activity. Merz showed the photo and ended her allotted time by recommending that the developers contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to apply for a federal nest disturbance permit for their work if approved, but for now, that is on hold — the county commission voted against the planned development at the meeting.

"Ultimately, you can't hang this on eagles or any one factor," says Audubon's Charles Lee. "It was a compendium of things."

Merz knows the developers will likely try again, though it may take a couple of years. She is optimistic that, given the feedback they’ve received from the public, they will eventually come up with a plan that is acceptable for everyone, and most importantly, will incorporate the required protections for the nesting eagles.

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