Will the Bonita Bay bald eagles stay or go?
That decision is up to the eagle more than ever now that the Bonita Springs City Council is no longer fighting to protect them.
Calling it a lost cause, City Council in a 5-2 vote on Wednesday decided to end its fight with the Bonita Bay Group over the developer’s request to reduce the eagle protection zone on its property to build 15 homes.
“We’re glad the whole situation is resolved, but we are committed to protecting the eagle,” said Susan Watts, Bonita Bay senior vice president. “It has been a long road for both sides.”
The council’s decision on Wednesday came two weeks after its members decided to wait for any supporters to rally to their side. That support came from the Sierra Club and the Responsible Growth Management Council, which each pledged $1,000 to the cause, and a letter from an attorney offering to represent the city for free.
With the City Council dropping out, the Responsible Growth Management Council may take up the cause to keep the eagle protection zone the same size.
“If we can get an attorney to do it pro bono, of course we would do it,” said Carl Veaux of the management council. “It is a habitat issue more than an eagle issue.”
In June 2007, the City Council denied Bonita Bay’s request to reduce the eagle protection zone from 1,000 to 330 feet, which was in contradiction to the recommendations from the city planners, the zoning board, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council and the Eagle Technical Advisory Board.
The developer appealed the decision, and its claim was upheld by Gov. Charlie Crist and his Cabinet in July. The Bonita council had until Wednesday to appeal Crist’s decision and decided against the appeal on Wednesday.
“Our chances are not very good,” Bonita Councilman John Spear said. “There has not been a groundswell in either direction on this.”
If the city appealed, the best-case scenario was a reinstatement of the original denial, and the chances of that happening are slim to none, said City Attorney Audrey Vance. Under that scenario, Bonita Bay could still re-file the request with the city.
The Bonita Bay nest is the oldest recorded nest in Florida’s history and has hosted at least two pairs of eagles.
“If the eagles abandon the nest, we’ll never know what could have been,” said Councilwoman Martha Simons, who voted to file the appeal. “The majority of the people in our city believe this is a treasure of our city.”
Besides further protection for the eagle nest, the other argument for a Bonita appeal was to protect the city’s right to govern itself without being subject to the mandates of other governments and agencies like Crist and his Cabinet.
“I’m concerned about losing our local jurisdiction,” Councilwoman Janet Martin said. “That’s a bigger issue for me.”
Even though the buffer zone around the nest can be reduced, Bonita Bay will still follow a protective plan to keep the eagles from leaving. The developer is required to increase its monitoring of the pair and let a third-party examine that data; and Bonita Bay has voluntarily decided not to build the first phase of the 15-home development during the nesting season.
“We have always been committed to keeping the eagles,” Watts said.