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Student concerns for Weeki Wachee River & Officials change ordinance governing alcohol on river

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Approximately 30 letters from members of the Weeki Wachee High School National Honor Society (NHS) were sent to the commissioners and staff. The students who regularly participate in cleanup missions along the Weeki Wachee river urged commissioners to take action to save the river.

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The writers offered their solutions and pleas to the board, illustrating examples of visitors’ behaviors that are taxing the natural landscape.  “…  it is being quite literally ‘Loved to Death’” wrote one NHS member, who also summarized how foot traffic on the riverbanks is aggravating erosion, and how littering has been a problem for many years.

Motorized vessels have been a concern for many as the county finds solutions to save the Weeki Wachee river.  “There has to be a smart way to regulate boating in the river,”  wrote NHS President Rafael Garcia.  He added that the honor society has also worked with the Springs Coast Environmental Center to remove the invasive plant species of Hydrilla and water lettuce.

The students are not the only group volunteering to collect waste and other pollutants in the water and along the banks.  Other groups and individuals have organized cleanups as well, however Garcia writes that raising the awareness of the general public is important.

County Administrator Jeff Rogers is a member of the recently-formed Weeki Wachee River Working Group, whose objective is to identify and correct issues that are causing problems such as bank erosion.  Rogers stated that he will be submitting the students’ letters containing ideas for saving the river to the Working Group.   

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The most recent Weeki Wachee Working Group held a meeting on Jul 22, 2021, however minutes of that meeting are not available as of this writing. 

During the July 27, 2021 Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting, commissioners addressed the problem of alcohol on the river.  They voted unanimously via a roll-call vote to change the language of the local ordinance that prohibits alcohol on the Weeki Wachee river, to something they feel can be better enforced by authorities.  

Though not stated at this meeting, during the December 18, 2018 meeting, Weeki Wachee River activist Shannon Turbeville explained to the board that the current Ordinance (79-5) which prohibits possession of alcoholic beverages on the Weeki Wachee “sets up”

residents who live along canals near the river for a misdemeanor charge while transporting alcoholic beverages in their boats to the Gulf of Mexico, and upon returning to their homes.  Such prohibition of possessing or consuming alcohol does not exist while on the Gulf waters.

Turbeville suggested at that time, that if the possession charge is reduced to a civil infraction, deputies may be more willing to enforce the ordinance.  

County Attorney Garth Coller brought the amended ordinance to the board, with the change that such infractions are no longer a criminal offense, with the penalty to be determined by a Special Master.

The language stricken from the ordinance is: “Violation of any provision of this section shall constitute a misdemeanor and any person so violating this section shall be punished as provided in Section 1-8 of this Code.”

While the Special Master operates under the Code Enforcement department, members of Code Enforcement or other staff are not allowed to pull over anyone in a boat under suspicion of alcohol possession.  “The Sheriff’s office much prefers the Code Enforcement / Special Master process, rather than going to circuit or county courts,” said Coller. 

While no longer a criminal offense, “the fines are large,” warned Coller.  If an individual charged with a first offense does not appear before the Special Master, they face $140 in costs, and a fine of $250.  A third offense can cost up to $15,000.

Coller did state that with the increase in Marine Deputies, the incidence of citations for alcohol offenses have increased. 

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