COLLIER COUNTY — Collier County off-roaders were supposed to be happy campers by now.
Instead, eight years after the South Florida Water Management District pledged to find land for an ATV riding site in Collier County, they are angry, the district is off the hook and the county is getting $3 million to try to finish the hunt.
That outcome was sealed Thursday, when the district’s Governing Board, meeting in West Palm Beach, voted unanimously to settle a legal tussle over the failed search. Collier County commissioners voted 3-2 earlier this week to approve the same deal.
“Horrible,” said Brian McMahon, treasurer of the Everglades Conservation and Sportsmen’s Club. “You can’t build a Little League field for $3 million.”
In 2003, amid similar bad feelings, the district pledged to find 640 acres for off-roaders as part of a deal by which the county turned over rural roads for an Everglades restoration project.
After a series of potential riding sites fell through, either because of unwilling sellers or environmental hurdles, the county sued the district in 2009 for not living up to the 2003 deal.
The district argued that a 2007 deal to clean up the Lake Trafford muck disposal site for ATVs superseded the original agreement.
McMahon said the county should never have relinquished the roads until it had the 640 acres in hand.
ATV riding advocate Rick Varela called this week’s settlement a loss for Collier County families still waiting for a place to ride. He put the blame on county commissioners.
“They essentially sold out the people of Collier County the same way Judas sold out Christ,” he said.
Commissioners Tom Henning and Georgia Hiller voted no on the deal this week.
In an email late Tuesday, Hiller wrote that ATV riders had been “left in the cold with this settlement.”
“This was not a positive, nor necessary settlement,” Hiller wrote. “The county was, but no longer is, in the driver’s seat.”
Hiller sought a provision that would prohibit the district from offsetting the cost of the settlement by reducing the amount of money it otherwise would spend in Collier County in coming years. As it stands, that prohibition applies only to next fiscal year.
A water management district lawyer balked Tuesday at Hiller’s suggestion, saying the current Governing Board could not bind future boards’ budget decisions.
The deal requires that half of the $3 million payment come from district coffers and the other half from the Big Cypress Basin, the local arm of the water management district funded by Collier County taxpayers.
The ATV settlement has gotten wrapped up in another potential dispute between the county and the district over canal maintenance.
Under a 2000 agreement, set to expire June 1, the district, through the Big Cypress Basin, maintains some 160 miles of drainage canals and about 40 water control structures.
A provision of the ATV deal extends the canal maintenance agreement until September 2012 to give the county and the district more time to negotiate a new deal.
County Commission Chairman Fred Coyle said he fears the district will not renew the canal maintenance agreement as it looks to cut its budget.
A bill awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature would give the state Legislature the power to cap the state’s water management districts’ annual property tax levy, starting with a 30 percent cut for the South Florida Water Management District next fiscal year.
_Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats