July 2, 2008
Residents Want Off-Roaders Off Nearby Lake Beds They Say Noisy Riders Damage the Environment and Are a Bother.
By BETH REESE CRAVEY
Ann Steinkellner supports the right to have fun.
When 30 to 40 mud-bogging trucks and 10 to 12 all-terrain vehicles recently congregated around Hall Lake near Keystone Heights, repeatedly revving their engines so loud that she and other residents who live blocks away could hear them, she tried to be patient.
But when she saw that some of the trucks were actually in the lake -- and several of them got stuck there and had to be pulled out -- she worried about potential oil slicks and dead fish.
When she saw trucks and ATVs doing doughnuts and figure eights in an adjacent lake bed, much of which is exposed because of low water levels, she worried about ecological damage.
And she got angry.
"You can have fun, if you respect each other's property," she said. "When the destruction started, that was it."
Steinkellner, who lives a few blocks from Hall Lake, is president of the Klare Estates Community Association. She is one of a growing number of area residents who have witnessed the lakes being increasingly used as playgrounds for mud bogging and off-road vehicles.
Some of the lakes, such as Geneva and Brooklyn, have public access. Some, such as Hall Lake, do not.
At Lake Geneva, the state has posted signs that warn of $10,000 fines for damaging wetland habitats or public lands; some lake-area residents have posted no trespassing signs on their property.
Still, residents around all the lakes complain about lake bed damage, late night and early morning noise, trespassing, littering and some truck and ATV drivers' disrespect for private property rights.
Residents have contacted the Clay County Sheriff's Office, County Commission and Keystone Heights City Hall. Some of them have researched water protection regulations and sent e-mails to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Harry Hazen, who lives at Lake Geneva, has even made detailed recommendations for a potential county ordinance he thinks could curb the problem.
"The operation of motor vehicles to travel upon the lake beds is an improper use no matter how you wish to look at it," he said. "The upland owners are ... tired of being awakened in the middle of the night by parties where they should not occur in the first place."
At a recent meeting about the lake bed problem, county and Keystone Heights officials said they have been stymied by jurisdictional and enforcement issues and private property rights.
Sheriff's deputies can respond to trespassing and noise ordinance violations but can only make cases if they catch violators in the act, said Jim Pimentel, legal advisor for the Sheriff's Office.
Except in the case of privately owned lakes, the state has jurisdiction over lake beds but has not prohibited motor vehicle access, declared the lake beds as environmentally sensitive areas or determined that they are being damaged, said Fran Moss, Clay's chief assistant county attorney.
"The state owns and controls the property," Moss said. "The county cannot assert jurisdiction without the state consenting."
Such state consent is issued on a case-by-case basis, said Scott Woolam, public land administration chief in the DEP's Division of State Lands.
Due to the complaints from Lake Geneva residents, the DEP authorized the county to enforce laws on those state-owned lands, he said. Woolam said he thought that problem had abated after the sign was erected warning of $10,000 fines.
"We just didn't take this inquiry lightly," he said.
Generally, the DEP has a two-pronged response to complaints, first establishing state ownership and then calling in biologists to determine if environmental damage has occurred, he said.
If enforcement is warranted, the DEP works with county officials and other state agencies, such as the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, to determine a course of action, he said.
"We are aware of the lake bed issue," he said.
A FEW BAD APPLES
Robert Murphy of Jacksonville, the former head of the now- defunct North Florida ATV Riders Club, said some mud-boggers and ATV riders may have shifted to lake beds because there are so few places in the area designated for off-road use.
Most off-road drivers are respectful of other people's property and quality of life, he said. A few bad apples are giving them a bad name, as well as harming efforts to establish more designated off- road sites.
"They are shooting themselves in the foot with their behavior," he said. "They have no regard."
On the recent weekend when 30 to 40 trucks and 10 to 12 ATVs were at Hall Lake, they congregated at the western end of the lake, where a makeshift campsite has been erected.
Chairs, a grill, empty beer cans and bottles and firewood remained there a month later, as did deep tire tracks in the exposed lake bed and wetland area at the edge of the lake.
"They came prepared to stay a while. They had tents pitched," Steinkellner said. "If they [authorities] don't do anything, it's not going to get better. I hate to see it. It has been such a beautiful lake."[email protected], (904) 366-6381
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