Saturday, December 9

Okeechobee County commissioners feel state not listening to concerns about proposed stormwater treatment area

Okeechobee County commissioners have unanimously voted to draft another letter of opposition to South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in an attempt to get on the agency’s agenda and address concerns over a proposed stormwater treatment area.

WPTV reported Thursday on the opposition to the project a 3,400-acre area north of Lake Okeechobee in the lower Kissimmee River Basin.

The land was purchased by Ecosystem Investment Partners, a private company that has since been contracted by SFWMD to turn it into a natural wetland area to filter phosphorus and nitrogen out of the water.

Commissioners and citizens fear it would drop property values, increase insurance rates and endanger planes going in and out of the airport.

However, commissioners feel SFWMD isn’t listening by not allowing the county to have a spot on the agenda to present all these concerns to the State.

“We’ve asked to be on the agenda for the South Florida Water Management board, to be able to do our presentation, to do a PowerPoint, and they said no,” Okeechobee County Commissioner and Chairman David Hazellief said.

Hazellief said he wants to do a presentation to properly communicate the concerns and suggest a new location for the project.

“Exactly, show the maps where it has an impact on the airport, show the maps where it could put residential properties in a flood danger,” Hazellief said.

Emails from SFWM show the agency will only allow Hazellief to speak during the general public comment and allow him to provide handouts to the South Florida Water Management Board.

In the 2022-2023 fiscal year, 24% of South Florida Water Management’s budget, $295,692,242, came from ad-valorem, or property taxes, collected from the people they serve, including Okeechobee’s.

“Every house, every ranch, everybody pays to South Florida Water Management,” Hazellief said. “I think we need to be able to express our concerns.”

WPTV contacted SFWMD, who declined an on-camera interview but released the following statement, reading in part:

“We value input from all elected officials and we have communicated to Okeechobee County that their commissioners are warmly welcome to come to any of the districts governing board to discuss their ideas.”

The agency spokesperson also added they reiterated this to commissioners after WPTV reporter Kate Hussey reached out.

“After you did, we got a call that said, ‘Yeah, you can present, but you can’t do a presentation. The full-blown one.’ It’s just so disappointing,” Hazellief said.

Hazellief isn’t the only one calling on the state to let him speak. James Madragall of Triple M Trees is too.

“Yeah, I mean, that’s all we want,” Madragall said.

Madragall was one of many Okeechobee residents to speak at Thursday’s meeting, voicing their concern for the stormwater treatment area.

Madragall said the wetland project, which would be adjacent to his property and the tree farm he works on, would put him and the 40 employees who work there out of business.

“The water table is going to stay high, and it will start to rot the roots on the trees, so it will kill all the trees,” Madragall said.

The company is also a huge economic driver for the county.

“We’re spending tens of thousands [of dollars] a month, just on supplies, and 95% of that is bought right here in Okeechobee,” Madragall said.

Madragall said he hopes the state changes its mind about the project, knowing it’s his livelihood that is at stake.

“We’re not looking to get a payout or anything,” Madragall said. “We just want to be left alone to continue doing our business.”

The next South Florida Water Management meeting is Oct. 12 at 9 a.m.

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