Coquina rescinds Interlocal Agreement with county: What does this mean to ATV riders on ‘The Prairie’?

OKEECHOBEE — Acting on behalf of the Coquina Water Control District (CWCD), the Owens Law Group sent registered letters Jan. 25, to the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Department, Okeechobee County Administrator and Okeechobee County Attorney informing them of the termination of the Interlocal Agreement entered into by Okeechobee County and CWCD in June of 2017.

One of the things the letter mentions is traffic control. It states, “A county may exercise jurisdiction to control traffic over any private roads, if the county and a Special District owning or controlling such roads provide for county traffic control jurisdiction by a written agreement approved by the governing board of the county.”

The letter also states the agreement has a cancellation clause built into it. “This agreement may be terminated by either the 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 term or terms.

Arguments over the Interlocal Agreement out on the Prairie have been going on since it was signed. The purpose, was to help the community with traffic enforcement and with crime in general, but some claimed the agreement was signed without permission of the landowners. Some feel the sheriff and his deputies are too harsh in enforcing traffic laws, and some are happy to have them out there and feel things have improved with the presence of law enforcement.

According to James Griffith, co-chairman of the Prairie Landowners Steering Committee, more trouble started when, after the agreement was signed, rather than cracking down on things like speeding, reckless driving, vandalizing roads or running four-way stops, the sheriff announced at an Okeechobee Board of County Commissioners meeting that he was shutting down all use of ATVs on the Prairie roads. Mr. Griffith said: “You don’t stop bank robberies by shutting down banks. It works, but it’s not right.”

According to the county staff report, for years, the sheriff’s office has provided patrols within the Viking/Prairie area and, when necessary, issued citations for violation of the State Uniform Traffic Control Law (Chapter 316, Florida Statutes). In part, this was based upon written request by the Coquina Water Control District. Florida law also provides that counties have original jurisdiction over streets and highways outside of a municipality and not under the ownership or control of the state. A street is defined as “the entire width between the boundary lines of every way or place of whatever nature when any part thereof is open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular traffic.”

This jurisdiction can extend to private streets provided they are “open to the public.” However, whether a particular street, road or road network is open to the public is a mixed question of law and fact that would have to be ultimately decided by a court if there was no other guidance or statute on the issue. Fortunately, the staff report explains, to try to address some of these issues while at the same time not lessening or qualifying the jurisdiction already vested in counties over streets and highways, Section 316.006(3) was enacted, which explicitly grants counties authority to enter into agreements with the parties owning or controlling private roads to extend traffic control jurisdiction to such roads. This section specifically references and approves agreements with “districts” such as Coquina.

Sheriff Noel Stephen stated, “The current Coquina board has notified the Okeechobee County Board of County Commissioners and me of their desire to rescind the current Interlocal agreement. This agreement was an attempt at a cooperative arrangement between the sheriff’s office, the county and the Coquina board to address a number of issues, including traffic enforcement within the Prairie/Viking subdivision. There is and has been a difference of opinion between the current Coquina board and me, especially relating to traffic enforcement. Efforts to achieve common ground have been unsuccessful to date. Nevertheless, Florida law clearly grants me, as sheriff, authority to enforce the traffic laws upon any roads in Okeechobee County where the public has the right to travel by motor vehicle. As the public has ready access and nothing prohibits anyone from driving upon the roads within this subdivision, even though they may be privately owned, I will continue to enforce these laws until otherwise ordered by a court of law or the Legislature changes the law.”

Kent Malinowski, co-chairman of the Prairie Landowners Steering Committee said, “The clause was executed. If he (the sheriff) says the law doesn’t apply to him. That’s on him.”

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

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