Okeechobee County seeks answer for Prairie controversy

OKEECHOBEE — At their Nov. 20 meeting, Okeechobee County Commissioners agreed to set up a workshop meeting with the Coquina Water Control Board to look for ways to restore peace on the Prairie (also known as Viking Estates.)

Sheriff Noel Stephen told commissioners that recent develops have been a “cause for concern.”

He said a T-shirt distributed with a deputy’s misspelled name on it was not necessarily a threat, but is a cause for concern. The shirt also has an image of a donkey and some offensive language.

He said he recently received a letter on “how they feel this same named officer needs to be removed.”

The sheriff said when he met with some Prairie property owners in April “they made some complaints and innuendos in regard to my officers.” He said he told them all official complaints will be investigated.

“There has not been any official complaint lodged with my agency,” he said.

Sheriff Stephen said responding to calls on the Prairie takes a disproportioned amount of his deputies’ time.

Officers stationed in the zone north of Highway 68 west are tasked to take care of Basinger, the Prairie and Fort Drum, he explained. The deputies are spending almost all of their time on the Prairie.

“The other areas are not getting any patrols,” he said.

He said he feels the current Coquina board has taken an adversarial stance against the sheriff’s office.

“I feel the negative posture from some of the residents needs to be addressed,” he said.

“Because of concerns for security, I am going to have to send an additional officer to the Prairie,” said Sheriff Stephen. He said that will be a financial burden on the taxpayers. He said the interlocal agreement allows billing the Prairie homeowners for the additional service.

Commissioner David Hazellief suggested a task force including code enforcement, animal control, the health department and the sheriff’s office address issues on the Prairie.
He said having a presence there will show the county will enforce the laws.

“Due to the nature of the area, it’s imperative our code enforcement officers are escorted by deputies,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread.

“The big issue is the people who live out there have ridden their 4-wheelers and their side-by-sides, and it has not been a problem until the last few years,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper.

He said some maintain the grass roads are private roads.

“What happens if someone is hurt on a grass road?” he asked. “Is the homeowner’s insurance liable?”

Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs said the T-shirt was very disrespectful to the sheriff’s office.

He suggested the county board sit down with the Coquina board for a workshop.

“I am not looking to negotiate anything,” he added. “These people will be treated just like anyone else in this community, with respect.”

“This Coquina board is a water control board,” he said. “They control the drainage and the ditches. They do not control the law enforcement.”

He said he also supports the idea to put together a task force.

“We need to get some of this mess cleaned up so people up there are not threatened, and they can live in peace and harmony,” he said.

The commissioners agreed to set up a workshop meeting with the Coquina Board. The meeting will be open to the public, but only the members’ two boards will participate in the discussion. There will be a designated public comment period. The county administrator was given several possible dates and will contact the Coquina Board to set up the workshop, which will then be advertised.

The commissioners also asked staff to set up a code enforcement sweep in the Prairie. As code enforcement has done for other areas, letters will be sent to property owners in advance advising the property owners of the code violations the sweep will address.

Commissioner Hazellief said since the area is 640 acres, they may have to check code violations in one section at a time.

Sheriff Stephen said the property appraiser has already generated a list of residences that are in violation of county codes. He said they could start with that list.

“The silent majority out there are good people who want law enforcement,” said Commissioner Goodbread. “They want to live their nice, quiet, safe life.

“Although we do get a little blow back, I don’t think that’s the majority. I think that’s a loud, vocal minority.”

Commissioner Kelly Owens said some property owners have misconceptions about the Prairie.

“There are real estate transactions going on where there is misrepresentation about what you can purchase the property for,” she said.

“Florida is a ‘buyer beware’ state,” said Commissioner Hazellief. He said as a Real Estate agent there are regulations, but if an individual is selling property it’s “buyer beware.” A lot of people say a lot of things when they are selling property, he added.

The original brochures selling 1.25 acre parcels in Viking Estates said the homes sites were “close to churches and schools,” he said.

“This has been an ongoing problem my entire 33 years at the sheriff’s department,” said Sheriff Stephen. “It’s getting more adversarial.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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