Gateway Sun

The Lake Bank Restoration Project is the term that encompasses a group of connected projects that all focus on repairing approximately 64 pond banks in Gateway.

It all started when a former Supervisor named Dave Harley filed a complaint with the South Florida Water Management District about the poor shape of the pond in his backyard, which definitely was in need of repair. The SFWMD inspected the pond in March 2014 and in April 2014 wrote a letter to the Gateway Services District that made a “request” to fix Harley’s pond. The GSCDD interpreted the letter as a directive rather than a request, which was probably the correct interpretation based on the fact there was a deadline given within the letter.

So the GSCDD made several attempts at fixing Harley’s pond which ended in failure. I don’t know how much was spent on those initial efforts, but it was hundreds of thousands of dollars that went straight down the tubes. The GSCDD insists they were experimenting and gained knowledge for their money.

Here’s where things stand right now: a “facilities plan” to repair the first 13 ponds has been filed, approved and funds are available through 20-year loans the GSCDD took out. Those loans are being repaid, also over 20 years, through increased assessments.

Five out of the 13 ponds (including Harley’s) were repaired in what has been called “Phase 1” at a cost of about $4.4 million – a figure that obviously shocked everyone.

Bidding and planning for “Phase 2” is underway. Phase 2 will consist of 6 out of the 8 remaining ponds from the original facilities plan of 13. Why are two ponds being left out? My theory is that the GSCDD thinks we’re stupid and wouldn’t notice that they happened to leave out two very large ponds… which would have spiked the repair cost dollar figure through the roof again, and they’d have a PR mess.

Am I saying that the GSCDD staff is manipulating the residents by artificially keeping the Phase 2 numbers down rather than simply completing all the work they say is necessary? I would assert that, yes.

They’re kicking the can down the road, as the Gateway District so often likes to say. Oh, and you’ll love this part. They’re also using different kinds of fixes for Phase 2. Some property owners will get the good expensive fix while other property owners on the same pond will get the cheapy fix depending on the state of that property’s lake bank. While it may make sense, good luck with that when some people notice they’re getting the short end of the stick.

Additionally, and just as importantly as anything else, while Phase 2 moves along they also appear to be laying the ground work to developing a facilities plan for the next group of 15 ponds.

The main question that the Gateway Sun has been asking is: just how did we go from a directive from the SFWMD to fix one pond… to now having to fix 64 out of the 69 ponds in Gateway?

Ten months ago we asked the SFWMD’s Fort Myers office if they were to blame, but they never answered us.

Last week (since things were starting to heat up again) we filed a public records request with the SFWMD’s head office to find out once and for all if the Lake Bank Restoration Project was their doing. This time, they did answer.

And the answer is: No, the SFWMD is not forcing the GSCDD to fix anything aside from the one pond.

We had further requested a list of all complaints filed in the past 5 years by Gateway residents in regards to their ponds. It turns out that Harley is the only person who has complained.

So what does this mean?

Since the SFWMD is the only entity that could force the GSCDD to fix ponds, and they’re not making the GSCDD do it, something else is going on. Why is Gateway planning on spending $25 million (which could actually be $30M or $35M) on fixing ponds if they don’t actually have to do it?

That’s about $4,000-$6,000 per home owner for those of you keeping score at home. For no apparent reason.

When a second informal request for information to the SFWMD Fort Myers office went unanswered last week, I had my suspicion as to who was responsible.

And just my luck, my suspicion decided to call me over the weekend to complain about last Friday’s article.

So I seized the opportunity and asked him… “Supervisor Ed Tinkle, just how did we go from an order to fix one pond to now having to fix all of them?”

Tinkle gave me the answer that I’ve been seeking since last year.

It was all his idea, he said.

He was trying to be “pro-active.”

Tinkle told me that he even organized three groups of people to go from pond to pond to rate them, looking for deficiencies that nobody was aware of yet.

“WWWWHHHHYYYYYYY????” I asked, while using my right hand as a claw… clutching and squeezing my own face in total frustration.

Tinkle attempted to tell me that he was elected on the basis of getting the ponds repaired….

… which put me in the awkward position of apologetically reminding Tinkle that technically he was not elected at all. (He ran against then-incumbent Supervisor Pamela Gill, who dropped out of the race before election day, handing Tinkle his 4-year term. Point being he has no mandate to do this.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that Tinkle’s mind was made up a long time ago. He’s absolutely certain that the GSCDD is responsible for fixing dozens of ponds, and he intends to do whatever is necessary to get them fixed even if it means he has to put on rubber boots and go find the problems himself.

His determination apparently includes convincing the other members of the Board of Supervisors that the SFWMD is fully expecting the GSCDD to fix every pond that needs fixed. Tinkle has created the impression that the SFWMD is completely blown away at the terrible state of the ponds in Gateway, and were it not for Tinkle and Tetra Tech being “pro-active” and leading the district in its approach, the SFWMD would drop the hammer. They’ll take Gateway to court the compel the GSCDD to fix the ponds if the GSCDD doesn’t do it themselves, so it’s a good thing that Tinkle has Gateway ahead of the game. And as long as the Gateway District keeps spending your millions, the SFWMD will allow the GSCDD to maintain control of the situation.

Except that narrative isn’t true.

Our records request included warnings or suggestions from the SFWMD aimed at the GSCDD to fix any ponds. By Florida law, the SFWMD had to turn them over to us.

But there weren’t any warnings to turn over.

Not a single one.

Aside from Harley’s pond, the SFWMD hasn’t asked us to do anything.

I find it impossible to believe we’re the only area in Florida with problem lakes and that somehow every lake we have is all wrong. So why is Gateway the only community doing this, I asked Tinkle?

Tinkle told me about a community named Gulf Harbor that went through the same thing as Gateway is going through six years ago.

But when I tried search for information about that situation in Google, the closest thing I found was a current problem involving sinkhole in Pasco County, FL that is leaving local officials with a choice between fixing the sinkhole for an estimated $8-12 million, or building a bridge over it for $4 million.

So what does Pasco County plan to do? Officials there want to build a fence around the sinkhole for $50,000 and call it a day.

But anyway… back to Gateway…

The facilities plan for the first 13 ponds has been filed and approved. I believe that means the ship has probably sailed for those 13. The SFWMD will likely be expecting those ponds to be repaired in accordance with the plans that were filed.

But right now there is nothing forcing us to do anything about the rest of the ponds. I guarantee you that Tinkle will tell his fellow Supervisors that in accordance with accepted permits and bla bla blabbidy blah bla they MUST be fixed and hibbidy hoo blah it’s the GSCDD’s responsibility and blah-blah blah. It makes more sense when Tinkle explains it.

My own idea was to get the SFWMD to come out to Gateway to take a look at our ponds and tell us which ones they “request” we fix. It was a rather brilliant strategy, I thought. But Tinkle shot that down immediately saying the SFWMD will never do that because they “don’t want to be the bad guy.”

No way the SFWMD come out to Gateway and stick their necks out like that, Tinkle told me. They’re too scared of potential backlash from state and local politicians.

So which is it then? Are the SFWMD the boogie man with the gun to Gateway’s head forcing us to repair ponds ourselves or they’ll do it for us… or are they a group of bureaucrats who don’t want any part of playing the role of a villain and who just want us leave them alone?

Because they can’t be both. And yet, Tinkle has described them in both ways at separate times.

What would happen if the GSCDD fixed the 13 that the facilities plan has been filed for and then went silent?

Wouldn’t the worst case scenario be that if a pond was bad enough a resident might decide to become the second person in Gateway history to file a complaint? The SFWMD would investigate and if there was a serious enough problem the SFWMD would tell the GSCDD to fix it. Okay so then we fixed 14 or 15 ponds instead of 64.

But what if someone on every pond complained? Even if the SFWMD showed up and said only half of the 69 ponds needed fixed, the savings would be many millions compared to Tinkle’s plan. If the SFWMD said Tinkle was a genius, and that all ponds need to be fixed, then we’re right where we are right now.

And what if these first five pond fixes fail in 2 or 3 years, just like the attempts at Harley’s lake did? And how much is maintaining these first five going to cost? And then the next six, and then the rest of the 53? The repair costs may only be scratching the surface when compared to maintenance and upkeep.

My point is, there’s not much downside to holding off and seeking verification of some kind from the SFWMD that what we’re doing is necessary. Because nobody else in Florida seems to give a shit that their pond slopes are 3-to-1 at 6 feet deep instead of 4-to-1, or whatever the official requirements are. Nobody else is being “pro-active”… not even the SFWMD themselves.

So why are we?

The entire Lake Bank Restoration Project needs to be re-thought. And before any other lakes are committed to be fixed, we need independent verification from someone other than Tinkle or Tetra Tech that the work is required. In my opinion, the GSCDD should hold off on doing anything until they’re actually compelled to.

And if Tinkle is right when he says the SFWMD won’t come out and look at anything, that’s fine. Because then they won’t be in a position to enforce anything, either.

break-line

EDITOR’S NOTE: The picture accompanying this article was taken recently and is most likely a post-repair inspection of some kind.

About Jeff Kuntz

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Editor of the Gateway Sun and owner of restaurant delivery service Florida Food Runner.

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