Marco Island ups penalties for violations of endangered species ordinance

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

The Marco Island City Council has increased protections to its endangered species ordinance but stopped short of adding the strictest penalties it can.

The revised ordinance approved unanimously by City Council increases protection zones around burrowing owls and gopher tortoises as well as penalties for first, second and third or more violations.

Under the new ordinance, an offender can expect the following fines:

  • 1st offense: minimum of $150, not to exceed $500
  • 2nd offense: minimum of $500, not to exceed $1,500
  • 3rd offense: minimum of $1,500, not to exceed $2,000

More:Marco Island City Council adds teeth to endangered species ordinance

More:Photo essay: The burrowing owls of Marco Island

The ordinance, which was last updated Feb. 4, 2013, previously allowed fines up to $500 but offenders were often being given $1 penalties by the magistrate. State Code generally restricts code ordinance penalties to no more than a $5,000 maximum unless the damage is irreversible.

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.

File: A burrowing owl guards his nest on Marco Island.

While all members of the City Council were supportive of increased regulations, confusion reigned at the beginning of the ordinance discussion after Councilor Howard Reed pointed out that a version of the ordinance change was not properly noticed.

Earlier in the day, city staff had emailed the City Council a new version of an ordinance that included 60-days jail time for third time or more offenders. The addition of jail time represented a major change in the ordinance, thus requiring additional notice if it were to be discussed at a council meeting.

“I’m flabbergasted, and I don’t know why the staff didn’t do what we asked them to do,” Councilor Larry Honig said. “We made specific recommendations for changes that should have been brought back and there should not have been any discussion tonight.”

Brad Cornell, of Audubon of the Western Everglades, said he was supportive of either ordinance language and called the City Council “visionary” for proposing increased protections.

“It’s important that penalties are sufficient to make it not a cost of doing business,” Cornell said. “It cannot be seen as an incidental expense along the way to getting the job done for a contractor.”

Allison Smith, a graduate student at the University of Florida and researcher for the Audubon of the Western Everglades, echoed support for increased regulations and protections for wildlife.

“Every single thing in this ordinance, all the really tiny details that seem insignificant, all these things can make a huge difference in reducing conflict between people and threatened species,” Smith said.  

While there was general audience support for the increased penalties, some thought it was not enough of a deterrent. Maria Lamb, a member of the city’s Beach and Coastal Resources Advisory Committee, called the penalties a travesty due her belief that the penalties would provide incentive to developers to kill the animals rather than comply.

With the Council looking to get changes on the books Monday, some of its members were not opposed to taking another look at the ordinance after some time had passed. 

“If we find that it’s not working and people are still violating it, then come back here and let’s fix it,” Reed said. “If we pass it and the magistrate still hands out $1 fines, then we need to do something else.”

Council Chairperson Erik Brechnitz suggested that the city report violators of endangered species regulations to federal authorities because their penalties were much stiffer, including jail time, and they had the willingness to prosecute violations. 

“It’s clear that the federal regulations and penalties are much greater than what’s in this ordinance,” Brechnitz said. “If you have this one percent violator, why don’t we turn him into the Feds and have them go at it because they have the mechanism to do it.”

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