Coquina Water Control sues Sheriff Stephen

OKEECHOBEE — In June, Coquina Water Control District (CWCD), on behalf of landowners in the Viking Subdivision, filed suit against Noel E. Stephen in his official capacity as sheriff of Okeechobee County. In the complaint, it is mentioned that on Feb. 28, 2008, William M. Byars, who was the chairman of the board of CWCD at that time, dedicated an ingress and egress to the public, and that he had a right to do so. According to Real Estate Agent Steve Lander, “Ingress and egress are just what they sound like: entering and exiting. While it might seem obvious that real estate would come with the right to come in and out, ingress and egress issues in property-speak can be complicated. Whether you’re dealing with a landlocked parcel that isn’t adjacent to a road or with a parcel that has limited rights to access adjacent roads, ingress and egress rights aren’t always obvious.”

The complaint also says that on June 9, 2017, CWCD entered into an Interlocal agreement with Sheriff Stephen and Okeechobee County and that the agreement granted Sheriff Stephen traffic control jurisdiction on Viking landowners’ private property described in the agreement. It was brought out in the suit that the agreement states it can be terminated by either Okeechobee County or CWCD upon providing written notice of termination to the other party not less than 90 days prior to the expiration of the initial term or succeeding terms. On or about Jan. 5, 2019, which was more than 90 days prior to the expiration date, CWCD terminated the agreement by notifying the sheriff and Okeechobee County, and on Feb. 9, 2019, through its Chairman of the Board of Supervisors David Law, CWCD executed a declaration extinguishing the granting of the right of ingress and egress to the public. It was made clear the declaration was in no way taking away the rights of property owners to come and go from their properties, but it was meant to remove that right from the public only.

The suit claims Okeechobee County agrees the Interlocal Agreement has been terminated and notes that Okeechobee County takes no position on whether Sheriff Stephen has jurisdiction on traffic within the Coquina Water Control District or on whether property in the district is public or private. The suit further claims that Sheriff Stephen claims to have legal authority to enforce traffic laws in the district whether or not there is an agreement and that he plans to continue enforcing traffic laws as he sees fit.

The suit alleges the plaintiff’s ability to control activities, including but not limited to traffic enforcement activities and recreational activities on their own property is necessary for beneficial use and enjoyment of that property.

CWCD is asking the court to stop the sheriff from enforcing traffic laws on the property of the Viking landowners. They would like to recover court costs and any other relief the court deems proper. They want the court to stop the sheriff from restricting the landowners’ private property rights. They want the decision on the use of all-terrain vehicles to be that of the property owners and not that of the sheriff.

The judge assigned to the case is Judge Laurie Buchanan, and no court date has been set yet.

Viking landowner James Griffith said: “The lawsuit is based strictly on Florida Statute. The law suit requests a declaration, or judge’s determination for three things (four technically) : (1) that the “Interlocal Agreement” (Traffic Enforcement) has been terminated, (2) that CWCD property is private and the sheriff has no authority to enforce traffic laws without a written agreement in accordance with FS316.640 and FS316.006, and (3) that CWCD has authority to authorize recreational use of their property which is already expressly authorized by FS 298.22(12).

“So you might ask, if these are already recognized and authorized by statute (Florida Law) then why file a lawsuit? Well, it’s because the sheriff continues to (allegedly) violate all three laws, declaring in writing, on the radio, and on video, that he will continue until a judge tells him otherwise. This troubles me and it troubles my neighbors as well as it troubles CWCD. So, CWCD is first to file suit! I believe it’s quite possible that the homeowners and landowners will follow. I can’t help but ask the question … Let’s say for kicks, that I manufacture whiskey. The law says I can’t. But I decide maybe I can. I’m not sure, but maybe, so I declare that I’ll just keep doing so until a judge tells me otherwise! Makes sense? I understand that the sheriff and county may be requesting the governor and attorney general to open an investigation. All the people I’ve spoken to are excited to hear this. We want, …. hell, we demand an investigation! Here’s a small taste of what they might find that’s been happening for the past two and a half years.

“The traffic enforcement CWCD signed up for (on behalf of the community) is not what we’re getting. What became of this enforcement is not traffic enforcement by any stretch of the imagination. When a person skids through a four-way stop, destroying another vehicle, but is friends of the deputy — no tickets are issued (we have photos), no one is at fault! When vehicles vandalize our easements and are abandoned in ditches, no tickets are issued. However, when a certain few deputies travel deep into private property and harass the property owners using OHVs on their property or Coquina’s, then tickets are issued and their OHVs are towed, and then they dupe the county judge into believing they were on public roads (I’m a witness). THIS is NOT traffic enforcement! When good citizens are arrested and spend two to three days in jail for arguing with deputies that it’s unlawful to tow their perfectly operational OHVs from private property. THIS is NOT traffic enforcement! When vehicles get towed from private property without landowner authorization and deputies use their friends towing company outside of rotation and without documentation, THIS is NOT traffic enforcement!

“We did NOT signed up for this and neither did Coquina on our behalf! The sheriff has amassed an additional $500,000 in revenues over the past 2-1/2 years. Could this be why?”

Due to the pending lawsuit, Sheriff Stephen declined to comment on any matters pertaining to CWCD at this time.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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