Commission backs sheriff’s authority on ‘the Prairie’

OKEECHOBEE — The new Board Of Supervisors of the Coquina Water Control District is fighting the sheriff’s authority to issue traffic citations, Sheriff Noel Stephen told the Okeechobee County Commissioners at their Nov. 8 meeting.

The Coquina Water Control District area, sometimes called Viking Properties or the Prairie, has been a source of controversy for years.

Some property owners in the area are full-time residents who have built homes and fenced their properties for livestock. Others consider the area a weekend retreat for outdoor activities, which include riding ATVs and shooting guns.

In June 2017, Okeechobee County and Coquina approved an inter-local agreement giving the sheriff authority to enforce state laws on the roads on the Prairie, even though the roads are not county maintained.

The sheriff said after that agreement was signed, a new Coquina board was elected and the new board oppose the sheriff’s authority.

Those in the “pro-riding group don’t agree with my position,” said Sheriff Stephen.

He said when deputies issue a traffic citation for someone illegally riding an ATV on a road that is open to the public, these board members are writing documents giving the ATV riders permission to ride their ATVs on the roads.

This is costing the sheriff’s office time, money and effort, said the sheriff.

“My officers are having to fight almost each and every citation that is written,” he said.

The sheriff said the county judge reviewing these citations written by the deputies has upheld the authority of the sheriff’s deputies.

The sheriff said he has an opinion from the State Attorney General’s Office which backs up the deputies’ authority to write traffic citations on privately-maintained roads that are open to the public.

He said in addition to the time deputies are spending in court, there are so many complaints about ATVs riders causing problems for other area homeowners that he has to keep an officer full time on the Prairie.

“The cooperation we had between the sheriff’s office and the Coquina Board has deteriorated,” he said. “It has been a confrontation between the sheriff’s office and this group of people.”

The sheriff said his deputies spend so much time answering calls on the Prairie that the deputy who should be working in Basinger and Fort Drum now spends all of his time on the Prairie.

Commissioner David Hazellief said Coquina is a water management district only. He said the Coquina board is trying to assert authority they don’t have.

“This is not Dodge City, this is Okeechobee County.”

Commissioner Kelly Owens noted the “inter-local agreement cannot be canceled until we are within the 90-day time period at the end of 5 years.”

Commissioner Byrant Culpepper said the “whole issue started when Be A Man, Buy Land started selling the individual lots.

“There is absolute chaos out there,” he said. “I believe their intention is to turn Coquina into another River Ranch.”

“There are people who live out there who have a lot of money invested in their homes out there,” Commissioner Culpepper continued. “They are scared to death. Threats have been made where somebody is going to get hurt.”

He said these homeowners don’t speak out at Coquina meetings because they are scared.

“Bullies in this organization have made threats against people,” he continued.

“This board is not going to be intimidated into not doing our job,” he said.

County attorney John Cassels said as the area becomes more populated it will require an increased law enforcement presence.

Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs told the sheriff: “You have 100 percent commitment to enforce the inter-local agreement. We will ask the governor’s office to investigate the process of how the current Coquina board was elected.”

“The legitimacy of that whole election should be investigated,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread.

According to the county staff report, for years, the sheriff’s office has provided patrols within the Viking 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.

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