East County Water Control District (ECWCD)'s four-part, speaker series came to an end on Wednesday, May 29 with a look toward the future of Lehigh Acres.
The speaker series commemorated ECWCD's 55th anniversary and provided a forum to educate residents, business owners and guests on the rich history of Lehigh Acres, its environmental resources, service providers and the community.
The final session, "Lehigh, A Look Forward", welcomed State Rep. Matthew Caldwell as well as a panel of local government agencies and area utilities to discuss their services and capital projects.
Rep. Matthew Caldwell of Lehigh Acres, right, talks with Larry Becker, left, chairman of the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District, and Interim Fire Chief John Wayne during a break in last week’s final series about Lehigh Acres put on by the East County Water Control District.
Caldwell, who lives in Lehigh, shared insights from the legislature and discussed the future of Lehigh. He touched on two pieces of very important legislation for Lehigh residents, which he sponsored. House Bill 1281 and House Bill 885 both passed in the Florida Legislature and were awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature.
House Bill 1281, would authorize the East County Water Control District to finance, plan, construct and operate streetlights and sidewalks in Lehigh, as well as provides the district with the ability to levy non-ad valorem tax assessments on a per-project basis.
House Bill 885, would give the residents of independent special fire control districts a say in how the fire departments are funded. At present, the Lehigh department is funded through ad valorem taxes and monies from emergency medical services and ambulance transports. The amendment would allow districts to call for a referendum and ask local residents to choose an assessment structure of either an ad valorem tax, based on the value of your property, or non- ad valorem assessment, based on acreage.
John Wayne, interim chief Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District, touched on the issues facing the fire district and the district's efforts to find proactive solutions.
Wayne noted that because the fire district's revenue is based on the value of a property, its budget was heavily impacted both by the climbing home prices of the mid-2000s, the recession and failing real estate market.
The district had to temporarily close two stations in the last few years and has been proactive in its efforts to lessen the impact of its budget deficit by applying for and successfully securing SAFER grants, he said.
Prior to the housing boom, residents in Lehigh Acres existed in concentrated areas. Today, homes dot streets throughout the 100- square-mile imprint of Lehigh. The fire district, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, services areas just outside of Lehigh Acres' boundaries, making its coverage area 143 square miles.
Wayne noted, that service calls are increasing. Last year the fire district received 9,700 ambulance calls and are on pace to break 10,000 calls this year.
Capt. Haberman of the Lehigh Acres Bravo District spoke on the efforts of the Lee County Sheriff's Office to improve services to the community.
Haberman noted Lehigh Acres' expansive boundaries and population size keep his 56 employees busy.
Crime mapping and changes in certain procedures have helped the department keep an eye on and reduce crime in the area, he said.
"The best tool we have to help reduce crime in Lehigh Acres is our residents," said Haberman. "We encourage residents to notify our department when they see something out of place or a crime in progress."
ECWCD Manager David E. Lindsay noted the district's 311 miles of canals play a crucial role in draining land after heavy rainfalls as well as in water conservation - without these canals Lehigh would be uninhabitable.
Today, ECWCD encompasses 70,000 acres of land. Approximately 68,000 of these acres lie in Lee County with the remaining acres in Hendry County. Its major programs include: canal cleaning and mowing; rights-of-way maintenance and management; National Pollution Elimination System; drainage and flood control; aquatic plant control; as well as limited parks powers at Barbara Farrell Park, Charlie Matheny Park and Jim Fleming Ecological Park.
"ECWCD is dedicated to the maintenance, management and quality of our waterways to ensure integrity of these resources in the future," Lindsay said.
A study conducted by ADA engineering in 2007, reported that ECWCD is 15,000 acres feet short of stormwater storage. Lindsay noted, the district has outlined projects to help reduce this shortfall in water storage capacity.
According to Lindsay, the district, like many other agencies, has had to do more with less. He noted that the district has been creative when it comes to identifying funding sources for future projects and has begun to look at community partnerships with agencies like South Florida Water Management and Florida Department of Transportation in order maintain the level of service needed for its water system.
"A common misconception is that ECWCD handles water services for Lehigh Acres," said Lindsay. "ECWCD's powers provide protection of stormwater resources through flood and drainage control; the district has no power over central water as that belongs to FGUA."
Florida Government Utility Authority (FGUA) services more than 12,800 water customers and 8,800 wastewater customers in Lehigh Acres. In addition, the FGUA provides reclaimed water services in bulk to three golf courses in the area.
Representatives from the agency spoke on the improvements to the water and waste water services they provide to Lehigh Acres like a treatment process to improve water color.
"The speaker series received a positive response from the community, helped raise awareness on the history of Lehigh Acres and helped guests to better understand the agencies which serve the community," said ECWCD Commissioner J. Nathan Stout.
The first session of the series covered life along the Caloosahatchee River in the late 1800s to early 1900s as well as examined the local ecosystem. The second session took guests on a journey through the history of Southwest Florida from the 1930s 1970s and examined the history of the "Buckingham Army Airfield" and the birth of Lehigh. The third session focused on the growth and development of Lehigh Acres from the 1980s 2000s.
The event was made possible in part due to the donations from local businesses like Mirror Lakes Golf Club and Building Industry Issues of Southwest Florida, LLC.