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Oslo Road boat ramp plan picks up opposition

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of August 8, 2013)

Florida Inland Navigation District Commissioner Paul Dritenbas says he strongly supports public access to the lagoon at the Oslo Road Boat Ramp but opposes the county’s controversial plan to expand parking and increase motorized boat traffic.

“I didn’t score the project high enough for approval when we voted on it in July,” Dritenbas says. “It needed 35 points and I gave it 32 or 33. I think there were other commissioners who scored it below the approval threshold as well.”

Indian River County has been trying for several years to get permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and St. Johns River Water Management District to fill wetlands, build more docks, dredge part of a channel and pave an enlarged parking area and roadway at the south county ramp to increase usage and make it easier to launch powerboats.

Dritenbas believes the county plan goes too far. “I think it would be better to develop it as a ramp for non-motorized boats,” he says. “With the popularity of kayaking, canoeing and paddle-boarding, we get applications all the time for non-motorized ramps.”

Dritenbas is against filling wetlands at the site where a functional boat ramp, parking lot and dock built in 2009 already exist. He thinks the 2,000 feet of Oslo Road the county wants to pave should be reinforced with geotextile fabric instead of being overlaid with asphalt.

He says the long-lasting, permeable fabric has been used in many similar situations to stabilize roadbeds while also reducing runoff that pollutes the lagoon.

“We need to pave the actual parking area where vehicles turn around, and it is good idea to get the muck out of the channel, but we shouldn’t mess with the wetlands.”

Dritenbas joins the Coastal Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Save the Manatee Club, the Marine Resources Council, the Pelican Island Audubon Society, Indian Riverkeeper Marty Baum and local scientists in opposing the county plan.

Opponents say the proposed work would endanger manatees in addition to damaging seagrass and fish populations in one of the few areas of the lagoon where seagrass and fish are still thriving in the wake of recent algae blooms and other events that have severely damaged the estuary environment.

“The level of access that has traditionally been available at Oslo is appropriate for that site,” says David Cox, Ph.D, a Vero Beach ecologist who works on many private and government projects in the county. “Intensified usage is not going to be sustainable for the natural resources there.” 

Grant Gilmore, a founding scientist at Harbor Branch who wrote his doctoral dissertation on seagrass and is widely regarded as the foremost expert on fish in the Indian River Lagoon, says expanding the facility could have a disastrous impact on fish populations.

Fish larvae are guided by chemical signals to specific locations to mature and Gilmore says the mangroves north of the boat ramp and the culvert to the south constitute the most abundant fish nursery between Cape Canaveral and the Jupiter inlet.

“Grant Gilmore is right,” says Dritenbas. “They have been studying that area for 30 years and it is one of the most prolific nurseries for sea trout, ladyfish, redfish and drum.”

Up until now, the project has met a stone wall of resistance from state and federal agencies that concurred with findings of environmental harm, but the county has been dogged in its efforts, bringing political pressure to bear on the agencies and repeatedly reducing the size of the project to win approval.

“I am anxious to see this go through,” says commission Chairman Joe Flescher.  “The objections are noted and have been addressed. The original design was for 40 parking places and that has been scaled back to 12.

There will only be a minimal amount dredging. There will be some impact on seagrass, but it will be minor.

“I don’t own a boat and don’t plan to get one, so I don’t have a dog in the hunt, but that is the only spot in south county citizens can utilize to launch their small craft and we think the improvements are needed.”

After hearing from Congressman Bill Posey’s office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife approved the latest version of the plan in April.

St. Johns website shows the project has been recommended for approval by plan reviewers but it also says approval is pending, making the status of the county’s permit application unclear at press time.

On July 19, a majority of FIND commissioners voted to provide $437,000 in matching funds to go with $462,000 in county money to complete the project, but that money is not final.

“We are still going through the full grant approval process,” says Janet Zimmerman, FIND’s assistant executive director.

“If the county doesn’t have all its permits by the time we meet in September, that funding goes away,” says Dritenbas.

The Florida Inland Navigation District is a special taxing district created by the Florida Legislature in 1927 to create and keep open a waterway along Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Dritenbas, an architect and fishing guide, was appointed to FIND’s governing board in March to represent Indian River County, replacing attorney Bruce Barkett.