Cape Coral and Lee County officials directed staffers Tuesday to work together to identify the best solution to the North Spreader Canal barrier issue.
The Lee County Board of County Commissioners and the Cape Coral City Council met during a joint public meeting in council chambers at City Hall to discuss the replacement of the Ceitus boat lift. The structure was removed in 2008.
The lift was taken down with the county's support to alleviate any further damage to the estuary and to provide the estuary with a chance to recover. The county now wants the barrier reinstalled. The city, however, does not.
Over the course of two hours Tuesday, before a packed council chamber, each side offered a presentation on their stance, followed by discussion.
The board eventually voted to continue talks on the issue for another six months, not declare an impasse, and instructed city and county staffers to work together conducting research and collecting data to find a solution.
"Cape Coral and Lee County are joined at the hip," Commissioner Ray Judah said, explaining that the city alone originally bore the cost of the barrier.
"That, I think, is the saving grace out of all of this," he said.
The county board approved the motion unanimously.
City Council voted 6-1, with Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz dissenting. Councilmember Marty McClain had to leave before the vote.
Each board will elect two members to take part in the future talks.
"It's really important that we work together to solve this before we throw it into the hands of the court," said Councilmember Derrick Donnell.
If the boards could not come to some resolution at the meeting, they would have had to declare an impasse, which would have resulted in meditation.
"I'm not comfortable with impasse today," Commissioner Tammy Hall said.
Councilmember Kevin McGrail voiced concern about taking it to court.
"You don't solve an ecological issue in the courtroom," he said.
Kim Trebatoski, a senior ecologist with Kevin L. Erwin Consulting Ecologist, made the presentation on behalf of the county. She said the lift's removal is inconsistent with the consent order, calling for replacement or relocation.
Trebatoski also suggested an assessment of the damages since 2008.
Judah said the barrier provides for the pulse and sheet flow of freshwater.
"It's such an imbalance," he said of the area's freshwater and saltwater.
McGrail questioned the points made in the county's presentation.
"Every one ends with, 'We don't believe your data,'" he said. "What I fail to see is a counterpoint. 'This is what we've done. This is why we disagree.'"
He noted that the barrier created 17 breaches in the system.
"It's the ocean flowing in from the west that's putting the pressure on the lift," McGrail said. "The ocean is flowing in and the ocean is flowing out through those mangroves. You can't put a cork in it to hold the ocean back."
"In my opinion, as a taxpayer, don't waste my money on it," he added.
Mayor John Sullivan echoed that sentiment.
"I don't want that boat lift in," he said. "I think that if we do it again, we're going to have the same situation."
Anthony Janicki of Janicki Environmental presented the city's stance. He noted that two attempts to close the south end failed, that the water quality trends show improvement and that proposed projects will improve it more.
Cape Coral has been working on its own set of projects to protect the natural balance of the estuary and Matlacha Pass. In July, City Council unanimously approved a water quality improvement plan for the area.
Projects identified in the plan are stormwater treatment improvements, maintained dredging profile, revising seawall engineering standards and more.
"Stormwater management has been effective," Janicki said.
Phosphorus and nitrogen levels are improving, and a report from the Department of Environmental Protection found a healthy marine system.
In June, the county's request for a hearing to replace the barrier was dismissed by the DEP. The DEP could not find any attempt by the city to undermine its own application to replace the lift, like the petition said.
Lee County filed the petition as a means of forcing the city and DEP to replace the barrier after an Ecosystem Management Agreement process found stakeholders at odds on whether the barrier should be replaced.
The DEP declined to participate in the joint meeting Tuesday.