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DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands, Polk and Sumter counties of Florida


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Sovereignty Land Grabs
Control of Seasonally Submerged Land = Conflict

The failed "submerged land grab" legislation may resurface again. Under current law the land under public lakes and waterways (navigable creeks, streams, bays, estuaries) belongs to the State and is held in perpetuity for the people of the state. The public land extends to the "ordinary high water mark". At low water this leaves, more or less, a strip of "dry" land bordering private land that the public has a right to use for camping, fishing, hiking, picnicking, etc. Clashes between upland owners and the public are not uncommon. Agriculturists claim that this access is a source of vandalism while members of the public claim to be harassed by ranch hands and public officials (Sheriffs) working for the riparian owners. On high water occasions this issue becomes a conflict between fisherman and boaters, and others who may be considered by the riparian owner to be too close to his property. In fact, the normal yearly high water is the ordinary high water line which separates public from private property. Some riparian owners block creeks and streams such as the Lykes did on Fisheating Creek claiming it as private and therefore theirs to clear for cypress timber and to lease for their private gain. Ultimately, the courts found Fisheating Creek to be "navigable in fact" (now and historically - at the time of Statehood -1845) and it therefore belonged to the people of Florida. The history of Florida is shamefully replete with examples of the Legislature giving away state lands to special interests such as industry, large land owners, and agriculture. In our opinion, any legislation today which would reduce the publicís right to use sovereignty submerged lands is just another reprehensible land grab for the benefit of a few special interest.

A recent example of such a land grab was the Dockery-Putnam ordinary high water definition which went through many changes but the main thrust seems to have remained constant and that was to define away from the people of Florida shallow lake bottoms so that they became the property of adjacent agriculturists. One of these in the "Proposed Strike All Amendment to HB 1807" read as follows: "Low lands, elevated only slightly above the ordinary level of the water, which are more or less subject to periodical overflow at certain seasons of the year, during some years in times of high water caused by rains, but are sufficiently dry when the water subside to be susceptible of valuable use as pastures and meadows, are not sovereignty submerged lands."

I wondered what such a redefinition of the Ordinary High Water Line would mean in terms of acres lost to the public on a lake most folks would recognize here in central Florida. I chose Lake Kissimmee because the various stages of that lake and the surface acreage at those stages were measured by the Corps of Engineers for the Kissimmee Restoration Project. The following Table comes from the Corps Stage/Area Curve as presented and published in the Kissimmee River Restoration Symposium:

Elevation  Surface Acres Difference (acres)
  48.0        30,000              0
  52.5        40,500         10,500
  54.0        52,000         22,000
  55.0        67,700         27,700

Again this is just an illustrative example to understand the potential sovereignty land loss which might occur if this proposed redefinition were passed into law. In other words, if the ownership on Lake Kissimmee were to be defined by the Dockery-Putnam land bill from 54ft to 48ft the state loses 22,000 acres on this lake alone. These are the lands we fish over, wade over, swim over and boat over under Ordinary High Water conditions as currently defined. This land grab failed to pass but the threat continues with each meeting of the Legislature.

Written by Richard L. Coleman, deceased,
former Florida Sierra Kissimmee Issue Chair


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shoreline of Lake Russell


masthead picture: shoreline of Lake Russell , published with permission
Copyright © 2003, Richard Coleman, All Rights Reserved

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