Sinkhole purchase urged

Apr 4, 2012

The following article was published in the Fort Myers News-Press on April 4, 2012: 

Sinkhole Purchase Urged in Lehigh

Movement grows among Lehigh residents to save property from development

By Cristela Guerra

Some call it the bottomless lake while others know Leeland Lake for what it truly is, a naturally preserved time capsule. It was food for local lore because locals knew it was deep, though no one could fathom how far down it went.

It’s a sinkhole an estimated 420 feet across and 209 feet deep. At the bottom the secrets are still hidden away.

Since it isn’t spring-fed, the bottom of Leeland Lake has no oxygen, making it a valuable resource to preserve anything that has fallen in. Water, silt and other samples could be geological treasures that tell the history of the area going back thousands of years.

Located behind buildings off Leeland Heights Boulevard, usually the only people who get to appreciate the lake and the ancient oaks that surround it are those who live at Lehigh Resort Club Condominiums. The nearly 20-acre property the sinkhole is in is still zoned commercial.

For a second time in two years, county commissioners are being asked to preserve it.

Ken O’Leary, the owner of the property, said he was pleasantly surprised to hear locals calling to save the land.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” O’Leary said. “I’m sitting here somewhat shocked. I’m more than willing to sell it. I have not been involved with this process but maybe this is the way it should be for the citizens to express interest instead of me.”

As of April 22, O’Leary can reapply for Conservation 20/20 to acquire his land. Owners have to wait two years before resubmitting an application.

The program, which uses tax dollars to buy and conserve environmentally sensitive land, initially considered his first application in 2010. Scientists and others spoke on behalf of the sinkhole as having extremely important archaeological significance.

A subcommittee approved the sale, while the final advisory board turned it down, to O’Leary’s disappointment. The original asking price was $3.8 million, a figure O’Leary said he put in only because the application asked for an amount. He said the land has not been appraised to figure out its current value.

Recently, a movement called One Voice in Lehigh Acres has once again contacted commissioners and county officials to make this a reality and save the land around it from potential development that could damage the sinkhole.

Residents will meet with Commissioner Brian Bigelow on Thursday to discuss the land, among other issues. They will also attend a public meeting on April 17 to present their opinions and discuss Conservation 20/20.

Rallying the troops is longtime Lehigh resident Ruth Anglickis, who is bringing together clubs and organizations across Lehigh Acres to come out and speak on behalf of the land. At the forefront are the Lehigh Acres Economic Development Board, the Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce and the Community Council of Lehigh Acres.

“This is a huge asset to Lehigh Acres, as well as Lee County, the state and is a national treasure,” Anglickis wrote in an email. “It’s all about stewardship and taking care of our corner of the world, not about one group or one individual.“

In response to Anglickis’ email inquiry, Commissioner Ray Judah noted that, “13 of the 24 properties listed for purchase under C2020 have been withdrawn from further consideration. Therefore, it’s highly likely that there may be funds available for eventual purchase of the sinkhole property.”

He was unavailable for further comment on Monday.

Lynda Thompson, conservation lands program coordinator, said she would like to see it taken care of; the challenge is how.

In 2010 she remembers there was a difference of opinion among staff. They acknowledged that it was a significant piece of property but felt it was a state or federal issue and that the county was not equipped to manage it.

“It’s a gem that needs to be properly looked after,” Thompson said. “To take on something so unique and so important…the committee didn’t feel we had the resources to do that. There was all this enthusiasm but no money.”

She’s not certain if that opinion could change if the land were to come before the board again. What has not changed is their lack of ability to manage the land, as it needs to be managed with proper scientists, divers, researchers and facilities to dig deeper into this natural phenomenon. She knows the original committee felt badly they could not support it the first time around.

“We don’t have the capability. We need help with the proper scientist to bring this site to its full potential as a scientific resource,” Thompson said. “But it’s a resource for Lehigh. It’d put the town on the map.”

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