More than two dozen Southwest Florida residents feared their access to kayaking and paddleboarding from Big Hickory Island could be compromised by a new landowner who staged a protest there on Sunday.
Beth Ann Algie, 66, one of the protest organizers, said public access to waterways around Big Hickory was under threat.
“We have the right to have public access to our navigable waters,” she said.
Algie said new landowner David Schie, working through the new Bonita Springs Conservation Association and the Estero Conservation Association, attempted to restrict access by at one point stringing cables across the waterways, not erecting no intrusion panel and installing cameras.
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“We said ‘no,'” Algie said. “Legally, he can’t. Legally, by the Florida constitution and by federal law.”
Algie said all boaters using the Broadway Channel pass and all boaters partying on the north end of Little Hickory Island are affected.
“And all anglers who fish in the Broadway Channel (between Big Hickory and Little Hickory Islands) are affected as well,” she said.
Lee County Commissioners heard Friday via an email shared with The News-Press from Jesse Lavender, County Director of Parks and Recreation, that numerous Lee County and County Sheriff’s Office staff de Lee have reviewed the matter and have concluded that a decision on this matter lies with the State of Florida.
Betsy Clayton, director of communications for Lee County, confirmed that the county has been informed that the state has concluded that the owner cannot restrict access to this body of water.
“The state has advised county staff that the owner may own the surrounding land and submerged land below, but the owner does not own the water; it belongs to the State of Florida,” said Clayton. “The state has told county staff that paddlers may use this waterway as long as they do not step on the bottom, anchor to the bottom, or step on the property.”
Lavender’s email also said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission should notify Schie of the notice.
Schie is listed in the Dun & Bradstreet Business Directory as General Manager of Linear Dimensions Semiconductor Inc. in Palm Beach and has an address in Fort Myers.
He did not respond to multiple phone calls or emails seeking comment.
Schie purchased four parcels of land on the south end of Big Hickory Island in late 2021 and early 2022.
Three plots on the west side of the island were purchased through the Bonita Conservation Association for $725,000 and one plot on the east side by the Estero Cohort for $377,313. The land was purchased from the Collier Development Corporation of Naples.
Schie is listed in business records as a director, president, secretary, and contact for the Bonita and Estero Conservation Associations. He also holds the same positions for the Cape Romano Conservation Authority in Collier County.
Algie said the issue was not resolved despite advice from the FWC.
“The FWC ruled in our favor because obviously these are waterways,” she said. However, she said the state Department of Environmental Protection has yet to make a decision, a decision she hopes will be consistent with the FWC.
“We think they will,” she said. “Their lawyers are looking at it now. We know we’re going to win, we just have to keep the pressure on.”
Kurt Bensmiller, the owner of Paddle Naples, a family business that has rented kayaks and paddleboards in the Big Hickory area since 2014, was part of the protest on Sunday.
“It’s definitely still an ongoing battle,” he said. “We have to keep fighting. It’s a protest but it’s also a celebration for now.”
Bensmiller urged the public to contact state officials.
“That helped a lot,” he said, “We’re also working with a legal team to defend ourselves as well.”
Bensmiller said a gofundme has been started to help fund the legal fight.
“We’ve never had a single problem here,” he said, before this problem surfaced a week ago. “We take safety very seriously. We make sure everyone is 100% confident before sending them out on a kayak or paddle board.”
Bensmiller saw the cables that had been stretched along the canal to limit use.
“I saw him set them up the first night and he ran them right through the mangroves,” he said. “A cop advised him to take them off. He came back the next day and just put them aside. You’re not supposed to hang stuff on the mangroves.”
The sheriff’s office confirmed that deputies were assisting FWC officers on May 15 at this site, but no report was generated.
Fort Myers Beach’s Ricki Dudak was one of the protesters who lined both sides of Estero Boulevard north of the bridge at Big Hickory Pass on Sunday.
“My goal is to keep the passes we use to kayak out open to sport kayaking,” Dudak said. “We don’t do anything to the waters, we are environmentally friendly. I don’t understand why the gentleman wants to close them.”
Dudak said she often kayaks and paddleboards in the area.
“If we see trash or anything recyclable in the water, we pick it up,” she said.