SFWMD asked to remove conservation easement

OKEECHOBEE — Airports and environments that attract birds are not a good combination.

Adam Hied, director of the Okeechobee airport, is working to unravel a decades-old problem that left the Okeechobee County Airport with a conservation easement. Okeechobee County hopes to offset the conservation easement at the Okeechobee County airport with wetlands mitigation at Bluefield Ranch.

At their Nov. 7 meeting, the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners voted to spend $487,500 from the capital improvements fund to purchase 3.25 credits (at a cost of $150,000 per credit) from the Bluefield Ranch Mitigation Bank so they can ask the South Florida Water Management District to remove the conservation easement from the airport property.

At the commission meeting, Mr. Hied explained that in 1996 a conservation easement was placed on the airport. Apparently this was done without the knowledge or permission of the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2008, when Okeechobee County updated the airport master plan, that conservation easement was shown on it. The FAA rejected the airport plan. The conservation easement is a violation of FAA orders, he explained.

“You don’t want to have anything on an airport that can create or preserve a wildlife attractant,” explained Mr. Heid. “You also can’t have any land on an airport encumbered by another agency that is not paying a fee.”

Consequently, the FAA denied the airport master plan.

Mr. Hied said since taking over as airport manager earlier this year, he has had some conversations with FAA, SFWMD and Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and was advised they needed to remove the conservation easement in order to begin developing the airport.

“We have been working with Avcon to determine how many credits we need,” he continued. The environmental consultant determined the county will need to purchase 3.25 wetlands mitigation credit to offset the conservation easement.

Once SFWMD approves the plan, and the county has paid for the mitigation, the conservation easement will be removed from the airport property. After a letter is sent to the FAA showing the conservation easement has been removed from the airport, the county can ask the FAA to approve the airport master plan.

Mr. Hied said the matter should be on the December agenda of the SFWMD governing board.

“A lot of people don’t realize what an economic generator an airport can be,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “We’ve been sitting on the bench for 10 years.”

Bluefield Ranch Mitigation Bank is authorized to provide wetland mitigation credits for developments in Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Indian River counties.

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