MARCO ISLAND — Fear for Marco Island’s American Bald Eagles is soaring to new heights.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida and a newly formed political committee want to bring bald eagles under their wings following an announcement in late May that charter high school proponents changed their preferred venue from the Marco YMCA to the property known as Tract K, where eagles reside.
The Conservancy is urging the Marco Island City Council to approve a bald eagle protection ordinance.
Meanwhile, citizens are banding together to try to get voters to decide the future of Tract K on Nov. 2.
If all else fails, they will buy the land and protect it without government help, residents said.
State and federal protection weakened when the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list in 2008.
“It’s still a fragile population. We want to ensure it doesn’t become imperiled again,” said Amber Crooks of the Conservancy.
Marco has two active nests, one of which is on Tract K, city environmental specialist Nancy Richie said.
Statewide, that might not be of much concern, Crooks said, but on Marco, if you lose one, that’s a big difference.
The proposed school could bring 300 to 600 students to Tract K, estimated Jane Watt, president of the Marco Island Discovery Center.
School activity likely would cause the eagles to abandon their nests, Crooks said.
Gerald Swiacki and Carl Way, as well as other Marco residents, created a political committee and separate foundation, Marco Eagle Sanctuary, to put the fate of the vacant 11.6-acre Tract K in the hands of voters.
They’ll have to scramble to get it on the ballot by the Aug. 24 deadline, however.
Tract K was deeded to the Collier County School District by the island developers, Deltona Corp., at a cost of $10.
Many Marco residents and city leaders believe that the developers intended to set the land aside for a school. There are no deed restrictions, however.
The land is too small and of little use to the district, Collier schools Superintendent Dennis Thompson said.
Watt requested the land at no cost.
“I can tell you that will not happen,” Thompson said.
When Crooks and dozens of residents descended on a council meeting in July to plead for eagle protection, council members said they were in the wrong place. They should talk to the School Board, council members Jerry Gibson and Frank Recker said.
“A school does involve the consideration of every council member,” Marco resident Frances Enman said. “Free speech belongs to all of us.”
School Board member Pat Carroll, who once opposed selling Tract K, said at a recent candidates’ forum that it belongs under city ownership.
Regardless of who owns it, Crooks said council has a right and responsibility to protect the eagles.
Citing Bonita Springs and Lee County bald eagle protection ordinances, Crooks said an ordinance gives the city a say over project design and mitigation.
“Local governments have a nexus now to review these projects,” she said.
If the Collier School Board approves the charter application this fall, the planning board and council will review any residential zoning change. State laws prohibit construction or disturbance within 330 feet of a bald eagle’s nest.
Initially, Ulgonda Kirkpatrick, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s bald eagle coordinator, maintained that regulations would prevent the school from building near Marco’s nest for five consecutive seasons.
However, in an e-mail to the Daily News on Wednesday, Kirkpatrick said an eagle disturbance permit could allow building the school closer if mitigation and other conditions are met.
“Each application is reviewed on an individual basis,” she said.
That concerns Crooks and others.
Watt has said the charter school leaders would protect the eagles to enhance the school’s eco-friendly curriculum.
Cheryl Brownstein, who lives near Tract K, is among those calling for protection of the land by creating a passive park without play areas.
“It would be a place for quiet reflection or meditation,” Brownstein said.
Portions would be closed during nesting season, proponents said.
The political committee is seeking approval from voters for the city to purchase the property for up to $3.5 million and create the sanctuary.
They will be hard-pressed to meet the city’s criteria, City Clerk Laura Litzan said.
The city must hold two advertised hearings of the ordinance, but currently there is only one Aug. 16 council meeting scheduled. There are 1,500 signatures needed on the petition that the city has yet to approve, and an Aug. 24 deadline with the Collier County Supervisor of Elections for submittal.
Way is concerned whether the city staff is stalling.
Alan Gabriel, the attorney from the Weiss-Serota law firm representing the city, denied the petition because it lacked an affidavit signed by five committee members and had imprecise ordinance language.
Aware of ongoing negotiations between the city and the superintendent for the city to purchase Tract K, including the proposal for a two-year, first-option-to-buy agreement, Way has other concerns.
“They better not purchase this just to hand it over to the school in a back-room deal,” he said.
If voters don’t get their say, Way said the foundation will seek donations from around the world to purchase Tract K.
He said he would support an appropriately sized high school, but the current proposal is grandiose for Marco’s and Collier’s needs.