Marco Island City Council adds teeth to endangered species ordinance

Devan Patel
Marco Eagle
A burrowing owl guards his nest on Marco Island.

The Marco Island City Council has taken the first step toward adding teeth to its code for the protection of endangered species on the island.

The City Council has unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that increases protection zones around burrowing owls and gopher tortoises as well as penalties for violations.

Director of Community Affairs Dan Smith said the current code allows for penalties up to $500, but with the fine determined by the magistrate, some consistent violators have been fined as little as $1.

More:Photo essay: The burrowing owls of Marco Island

More:Birds of a feather: Marco Islanders give a hoot about 'the little guys'

More:Burrowing owls hold on as threatened species as Marco homes rise around them

The city’s endangered species code was last updated Feb. 4, 2013.

As part of the proposed ordinance, city staff suggested fines that started at a minimum of $500 all the way up to $2,000. However, the fine structure was quickly revised after some councilors believed the penalties were too stiff.

“I don’t know why we have to take that posture as a government,” Councilor Larry Honig said in referring to the original proposal as vast government overreach. “On the penalties, these are outrageous in my opinion.”

Reaching a consensus, members of the Council agreed to look at fines starting as low as $150 because some violations may be accidental in nature. City staff will also look to bring back a new fee structure that increases fines for frequent violators.

In terms of widening protection zones, the new code would increase them from 25 feet to 33 feet, which is consistent with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Preservation Commission’s requirements.

For builders that require a pre-permit inspection, they would also be required to complete a 100 percent survey of parcels for listed endangered species on Marco Island. The new requirement would also apply to staging lot permit and seawall applications.

Jean Hall, project manager of Audubon of the Western Everglades Owl Watch, said the organization has about 290 addresses with owls, some of which have multiple burrows on them.

Also referring to the parts of the proposed ordinance as “government overreach,” Councilor Howard Reed suggested that the ordinance revise its definitions to include the most commonly listed endangered species on Marco Island as opposed to the complete list from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To illustrate his point, Reed printed out the complete list of endangered species from the federal agency, which he said amounted to 2,413 species of animals and plants.

“If I were filibustering, I’d read it into the record,” Reed joked.

Reed said he did not think code enforcement could be trained on the complete list of species or that it was fair to citizens and developers to have to be responsible for it either.

With the passing for the first reading, the changes talked about during Monday’s meeting will be incorporated and brought back for final approval next month.

More:Natural fit: Friends of Tigertail invite public to discover the beach

More:Guardians of the beach: Husband-and-wife team work to protect the beach