When a developer or property owner converts their land to an environmental easement, there is an agreement between the landowner and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission to keep that property in good shape - particularly when wildlife is involved.
Rock Springs Ridge's 51-acre gopher tortoise conservation area, which is under an environmental easement with the FWC, has been under the care of the RSR Homeowners Association for over 20 years now. However, the care and maintenance it is receiving were in question after a site visit by the FWC in November 2022.
According to an 18-page document from the FWC, obtained in a public records request, the RSR HOA has allowed the property to fall into serious disrepair, as stated in the site visit report.
"The purpose of this site visit was to evaluate damage from a retaining wall collapse and conduct opportunistic compliance monitoring of three of the four Rock Springs Ridge easements (i.e., ORA-054, ORA-036, and ORA-085) (Figure 1)," the FWC writes in the report. "The retaining wall borders several parcels within a development outside of Rock Springs Ridge HOA that falls adjacent to ORA-036. After Hurricane Ian, the retaining wall collapsed and fell within the boundary of conservation easement ORA-036 (Figure 2). Without repair, the retaining wall will likely further collapse into the easement and cause additional impacts to the protected habitat. The extent of soil erosion from the retaining wall collapse necessitates the use of heavy equipment to repair the retaining wall (Figure 3). It is not feasible to repair the retaining wall from the adjacent parcel; instead, the repair will require temporary access to the easement. A potential route of access through ORA-036 for heavy equipment was evaluated during the site visit, and it was determined that no tortoises or burrows were present within the area at that time."
Several other compliance issues were identified and discussed during this site visit:
A lot has been cleared within easement ORA-036, where fencing, a swimming pool, and a pool cage have been constructed. Cleared habitat has been sodded with nonnative turfgrass
Large amounts of household trash and debris are present
Concept plans to develop 273 additional housing units within ORA-085 have been presented to the city of Apopka. Perpetual conservation easement ORA-085 prohibits development.
Public access and off-highway vehicle (OHV) use within easements ORA-036 and ORA-085.
Subdivision of 6 lots within easements ORA-036 and ORA-085 apparent along Sand Wedge Loop.
An entrance to a potentially occupied gopher tortoise burrow was obstructed by a survey marker within ORA-085. Numerous other burrows within this easement were also marked with orange flagging tape.
Lack of habitat management within (420) Other Hardwood and (421) Xeric Oak has resulted in unsuitable habitats through most of the easements. The introduction of invasive species within ORA-085 has caused significant habitat degradation.
"The majority of habitats within easement ORA-054, the western area of easement ORA-036, and the eastern area of easement ORA-085 have succeeded to closed canopy successional hardwood forest due to the failure to implement habitat management. This habitat is not suitable for gopher tortoises, and neither tortoises nor their burrows were observed within successional hardwood areas. Still, significant patches of suitable habitat remain where mowing appears to have occurred on a regular basis. These patches demonstrate that the easements offer conservation value, and the application of remedial steps discussed in this site visit form can help realize the full conservation potential of these properties."
The report also included 20 photos of the infractions the FWC observed during the site visit.
The Apopka Voice emailed the RSR HOA Board members on Sunday at approximately 1 pm to learn if any improvements, repairs, cleanup, or work has been done on the gopher tortoise conservation area in the last three months in order to come into compliance with the FWC but did not receive a response by the time the article was published.
And according to the FWC, the penalty for non-compliance has not been determined.
"FWC staff communicated noncompliance issues that were observed on the property and provided suggestions for remedial actions," said Lisa Thompson of the Division of Habitat and Species Conservation for the FWC. "The penalty for noncompliance varies based on type."
And according to another FWC representative, there has been no communication between the RSR HOA Board and the FWC since the site visit.
"As far as I’m aware, FWC has not been in direct contact with Rock Springs Ridge, Esler Golf Designs, or the Golf Group regarding the Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area at Rock Springs Ridge," said Alex Kalfin, the Program Planning & Monitoring Administrator/Wildlife Diversity Conservation Section of the FWC. "The FWC did provide a letter to Mr. Burt Fairchild (Title President, Rock Springs Ridge HOA) dated February 3rd regarding the FWC’s maintained interest in the perpetual conservation easement and the response process for easement release requests. A site visit to the conservation easement was also conducted on 11/01/2022. I’ve confirmed with staff that no additional communication has taken place."
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Pathetic. Looks more like a dump. At least, I don't see homeless camps, or evidence of constant "controlled" burns," like the nearby state forest lands burnt to a crisp. I think of the song title, "When doves cry".
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