4 min read

Picayune Access: Driving on the Merritt Berm/Levee

Allowing public access via the Merritt Berm would make Picayune more accessible, while actually REMOVING a road from the area.
Picayune Access: Driving on the Merritt Berm/Levee
One unnamed spot among many in Picayune that could be made more accessible, while at the same time, actually removing a road from the area. See below to understand how this would be possible.

On November 8, 2021, GHL sent a Letter to relevant agency heads at Florida Forest Service ("FFS") and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ("FWC") responsible for managing certain aspects of Picayune Strand State Forest (“Picayune”) regarding two separate access issues. This Letter has been circulated internally by local FWC contacts that have advised their agreement and intention to push for incorporation of the proposed rule changes in the coming year.

Part 2 of the Letter addressing the rule against driving on the berm/levee on Merritt Boulevard (the “Berm”)  is set forth in relevant part below. Click here to read Part 1 of the Letter regarding proposed access from the south.

Dear Mr. Weston and Mr. Bingham, and other colleagues whom this may concern,

Picayune is a well-managed area, and the public is fortunate to enjoy meaningful opportunities for recreation in it. I am writing to you with a couple of suggestions, consistent with the Ten-Year Land Management Plan, dated June 15, 2020 (the “Management Plan”), and Florida law, that would enhance the experience even further.

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The Berm should be opened for public vehicular access. Understanding that the Berm is technically a water management structure and that restoration activities by South Florida Water Management District (“SFWMD”) take priority over recreational access, agency employees should maintain the right of way at all times and the Berm should never be obstructed by parked vehicles. However, the current rule closing the Berm to the public altogether is arbitrary.

F.A.C. 40E-7.525 governs the use of vehicles relating to SFWMD and does not prohibit operating vehicles on water management structures. F.A.C. 68A-15.064(8)(d), relating to FWC, essentially delegates responsibility for designating roads and vehicle access to FFS. F.A.C. 5I-4.003(5), governing FFS, prohibits driving on managed lands except on designated roads or areas but appears to give broad discretion in making such designations.

As such, Florida law does not require the Berm to be closed off to public vehicular access. Rather, this is a local management decision that FFS can and should change to further its goal of increasing public access by designating it as an area open to public vehicle access with appropriate limits.

Under current rules, the public is required to drive on a road that parallels the Berm. This road is often completely flooded because it is in between the Berm and a canal and full of unpredictable underwater potholes. This requires constantly driving over unseen potholes that damage vehicle suspension and make the drive unenjoyable.

In practicality, it may take over thirty minutes to drive down this road at the speed required to handle submerged potholes, whereas driving down the maintained Berm may take five minutes. An extra hour is substantial for people that are already spending time commuting to get to Picayune. Much of the law-abiding public will not use the road at all in its current condition because of how harsh and unpredictable it is, along with the time commitment, and forego access to this part of Picayune altogether, which cuts against the stated management goal of increasing recreational access. Others continue to use it regardless of the rules.

Further, as it is impossible to differentiate the road from the canal that it borders when conditions are wet, people naturally drive as closely to the Berm as possible to avoid the potential disaster of driving into the canal. As a result, the sides of the Berm have been degraded and deformed substantially by trucks hugging the side of the Berm, which is dirt and grass, and driving diagonally on it. This wears away the grass and dirt and degrades the Berm, which seems to be the exact harm sought to be avoided by designating it as off limits to driving.

The top of the Berm, on the other hand, is graveled and maintained in a manner that is clearly designed for vehicles to use. The top of the Berm remains well-maintained and smooth and does not seem to be degrading, despite agency employees and members of the public (illegally) driving on the top of it on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, though, FWC is forced to use its resources enforcing the rule against driving on the Berm. Understanding that FWC plays a crucial role in enforcing Florida law and local rules that facilitate restoration, conservation, and outdoorsman values, it is a waste of FWC resources to dedicate officer time to enforcing this rule. FWC’s role is too important to be dedicating resources to this, and it creates an unnecessary conflict between outdoorsmen that are legitimate conservationists, but view this rule as arbitrary, and FWC officers that are just doing their job.

It would seem to be in everyone’s interest to open the Berm to public vehicular access with appropriate limits that ensure the access does not interfere with water management.

Thank you for your time in reading and considering this letter and for what you do in maintaining Picayune and other public lands.

Picayune Archery season 2021

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