Water management district rejects Collier’s ATV lawsuit settlement

— A search for a place for off-roaders to ride remains mired in a lawsuit after South Florida water managers voted Thursday to reject a proposed settlement from Collier County.

The governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, meeting today in West Palm Beach, voted unanimously to reject the county’s proposal and to make an unspecified “alternate proposal” instead.

Governing board members voted without comment after a closed-door session allowed under Florida’s open meetings laws to discuss litigation strategy.

Collier County sued the district last year, saying it had breached a 2003 pledge to find 640 acres for a riding site in return for the county turning over miles of rural roads in Southern Golden Gate Estates for an Everglades restoration project.

Thursday’s vote didn’t surprise off-roaders already frustrated by years of unfulfilled promises.

“It’s just another day for the water management district,” said Brian McMahon, who has pushed for a site for all-terrain vehicle riders. “I always said for years they never intended to live up to their agreement.”

Water managers have identified a series of potential interim and permanent spots, but those sites either have been unable to overcome environmental hurdles or have been owned by unwilling sellers.

Last month, Collier County commissioners voted to offer a settlement proposed by Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta.

Coletta called Thursday’s decision a “big disappointment” and said it leaves two government agencies spending taxpayer money fighting each other rather than solving the issue.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this at all,” he said.

Under Coletta’s proposal, the district would buy a 375-acre rock mine northwest of Immokalee in Hendry County and turn it into a park for off-road riders.

The proposal also called for the district to pay for two fishing piers under the Judge S.S. Jolley Bridge to Marco Island and to expand the Pepper Ranch Preserve in Immokalee with land the district owns as a disposal site for muck from a dredging project in Lake Trafford.

Coletta figures that the district owes the county $12.9 million worth of improvements under the 2003 deal.

If the value of the county’s settlement falls short of that dollar mark, the district would have to put the balance toward the cost of managing the park, according to the deal.

Water management district spokesman Gabe Margasak said he could not speculate on whether any part of the county’s offer would be part of the district’s alternate proposal.

“They plan to continue to negotiate,” he said.

Until Coletta’s proposal came up, the two sides had been negotiating a cash settlement but had been far apart, Collier County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow said Thursday.

Klatzkow said Coletta’s proposal was “quite reasonable.”

“I’m frankly surprised they rejected it,” Klatzkow said.

Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.

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