NewsTreasure CoastRegion Okeechobee County


Concern mounts over proposed stormwater treatment area in Okeechobee County

'I don't think anybody in this room is against the concept. We’re against the location,' Okeechobee Commission Chairman David Hazellief says
Posted at 6:54 PM, Sep 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-28 18:56:01-04

OKEECHOBEE COUNTY, Fla. — Concern is mounting in Okeechobee County as homeowners, businesses, pilots and county commissioners came together to oppose a stormwater treatment area (STA).

The project would be in a 3,400 acre area north of Lake Okeechobee in the lower Kissimmee River Basin.

The land was purchased by private company Ecosystem Investment Partners, who has since been contracted by South Florida Water Management to turn it into a natural wetland area.

The idea is to naturally filter phosphorus and nitrogen out of the water before it seeps into Lake Okeechobee in an effort to curb pollution.

"I don't think anybody in this room is against the concept. We’re against the location," said Okeechobee Commission Chairman David Hazellief in Thursday's meeting.

Okeechobee Commission Chairman David Hazellief.png
Okeechobee Commission Chairman David Hazellief discusses his issue with the location of the proposed project.

About 30 to 40 residents joined in to stand in solidarity against the project during that meeting, with several others taking to the podium to voice their concerns.

For one, the area is designed to be a type of water table, which Ecosystem Investment Partners said would store about 12 to 20 inches of water.

Hazellief, who works in real estate, along with several homeowners, feared the project would place the developments nearby, including the Lazy 7 Subdivison, in a flood plain, which could potentially plummet property values and raise insurance rates.

"For 30 years I've lived in that house," said Lazy 7 resident Nellie Sprouse. "And now I've gone out and purchased flood insurance."

Sprouse said she'd be paying $2,000 more a year to pay for flood insurance, while Steve Griffin, who owns and over 300-acre Tree Nursery, said he and his 40 employees would be out of a job.

Lazy 7 resident Nellie Sprouse
Lazy 7 resident Nellie Sprouse explains how she has now purchased flood insurance.

“Water seepage will put me out of business. We ship about a 1,000 trees a week on average, and there’s about 80 million dollars worth of trees in there," said Griffin.

The other problem is the project's proximity to Okeechobee Regional Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration recommends all airports keep a five mile radius free of any wildlife attractions because birds, which are attracted to wetlands such as the one proposed, can get caught in the engines of low-flying planes and cause a crash.

The Federal Avation Administration sent data to NewsChannel 5 showing in the past 30 years, there were 292 human fatalities, and 327 human injuries attributed to wildlife strikes.

Steve Griffin who owns and over 300-acre Tree Nursery.png
Steve Griffin, who owns and over 300-acre Tree Nursery, explains how the project would impact his business.

However, the wetland area proposed falls within that five mile radius, and directly in the path of takeoff.

Hazellief said the FAA has now issued a formal warning, saying the wetland's proximity to the airport could be deadly.

"I'm a former army pilot," said Okeechobee County resident Jamie Mayes, "I've personally been part of a crew that has hit birds. I just really want to reiterate that this is very dangerous.”

“We're going to have massive amounts of birds. The FAA said it can’t be there. They’re pushing for it anyway," added pilot Jeremy Larue.

pilot Jeremy Larue Okeechobee stormwater treatment area
Pilot Jeremy Larue shares his concerns about how the proposed project would bring birds and impact pilots at nearby Okeechobee Airport.

WPTV reached out to both South Florida Water Management and Ecosystem Investment Partners.

EIP's Kyle Graham sat down for an interview with WPTV's Kate Hussey. He said he hadn't heard these concerns from the county before, but said he has a team of scientists working on the project and studying the potential impacts, both to the airway and the surrounding area.

He said the project isn't set in stone yet, but added he doesn't believe flooding will be an issue.

“We’re not filling up the flood plain with materials so we’re not affecting where the water would go," Graham said. "We're not changing the flood plain capacity, so it shouldn’t change insurance."

Graham also said EIP is looking at putting up a potential buffer between the nearby housing developments and the STA.

Ecosystem Investment Partners Kyle Graham
Ecosystem Investment Partners' Kyle Graham explains how the proposed project would not drastically change the area and how they are looking to mitigate issues.

South Florida Water Management declined an interview but did release a statement to WPTV, reading in part:

"We’re aware of the significant public interest in the project, and we’re working with EIP to incorporate the public’s interests in their project plan. All of the items you mentioned are being evaluated while the project plan is developed."

Hazellief said he hopes the agency reconsiders their plan.

"I hope they reconsider and move it," he said.

This is just part of the story. Hazellief and other residents said they don't feel like their public comments are being taken into consideration by the State, and feel silenced.

WPTV's Kate Hussey will have that half of the story Friday on NewsChannel 5.