MARCO ISLAND — Marco's Code Enforcement Board often takes up the cases of residences fallen into disrepair, with the possibility of becoming unsafe for the occupants. Tuesday, that was once again the focus of the CEB meeting in City Council chambers, but in this case, the residents are known for carrying their homes on their backs.
Gopher tortoises became a major focus for Code Enforcement, when a lot mowing company ran over and destroyed a number of the threatened species' burrows. The cases, one against AAA Lot Service, and one against the property owner, stemmed from the mowing of the vacant lot at 1750 Dogwood Drive.
On Sept. 17, testified code compliance officer Paul Ashby, the city received a phone report that a large tractor had mowed over the entire lot, which is known to be inhabited by gopher tortoises.
"I have been monitoring that lot for 10 years," stated Nancy Richie, Marco's environmental specialist. "Some of the turtles appeared to have dug out" of the burrows after they were collapsed by the tractor, but some of the 10 burrows on the lot were "irreversibly" lost, she said.
Wooden stakes and orange tapes marking the burrows had been mowed over, said code compliance supervisor Liz Carr. But State of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officers who came to the site said they could not prosecute the violation, as there were no actual signs warning of the tortoises' presence.
Richie seized on the case as a way to remedy that situation, and provide tortoise signs, which she said are needed to prevent similar occurrences, but for which she has no budget.
"I'm kind of begging for signs," she told the board.
AAA Lot Service owner Bernard Wegman was on hand, and explained that the mowing at 1750 Dogwood, which should have included only the right of way along the street, was performed by an employee. That individual, he said, was terminated after he did the same thing a second time.
Wegman was apologetic, and Carr said she believes he was working with the city in good faith. CEB chairman Lou Prigge, who also operates a lot mowing business, added his endorsement.
"I know Bernie would not cut over a turtle nest," he said. Prigge added that gopher tortoises are "very social. If you have one, next time you come back," more will have moved in beside them, he said.
"It seems this was an honest mistake," said board member Dawn Henderson, indicating she did not believe punishment was appropriate. Some action is required, countered member Rony Joel. In a similar situation, the board had imposed a $5,000 fine, noted Prigge.
Brian MacLaren, the neighbor who had made the initial report, also spoke.
"There were turtles killed, no doubt. If you keep chipping away at the little bit of land they have left, soon they'll all be gone," he said.
In lieu of a fine, Wegman agreed to provide signage warning people away from gopher tortoise burrows. Six large signs at $200 each, and 50 small signs, at a total cost of $1,950, will be furnished. Wegman indicated he was happy with that resolution. When it comes to protecting endangered and threatened species, the laws have some teeth.
The owner of the lot, Roland Kowal, was also present, and thanked his neighbor for bringing the destruction to the attention of the city. The case against him was dismissed.
The board also agreed to waive all fines against Kathleen Gorman, for the "failure to connect" case on the home at 581 Diplomat she is attempting to sell, and voted to impose "repeat offender" status on the James L. Karl Trust, which had been having remodeling work done with no permit at 695 bald Eagle Drive. This will allow fines up to $500 per day to be assessed, should further violations be detected.
Board members Phil Kostelnik and Debra Shanahan were absent.