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Dispute leads to tolls, traffic lights for canal boaters

CORTEZ – Boaters can expect one-way navigational patterns in the privately-owned Hunters Point canal, with some having to pay automated tolls to use it.

Canal access will remain free for canal-side homeowners, Buttonwood Inlet and Holiday Cove RV resort guests and others, but those who store their boats at the Cortez Village Marina will soon be asked to pay a fee to use the canal that provides marina boaters with their only direct water access to the nearby Intracoastal Waterway.

These revelations were made by Hunters Point developer Marshall Gobuty during the rebuttal testimony he gave on Sept. 2 during a multi-day administrative hearing that began in June, continued in August and resumed on Sept. 1. The hearing is expected to conclude on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

Administrative law Judge Bruce Culpepper is being asked to issue a recommended order as to whether the environmental resource permit the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) issued in 2021 to Gobuty and his Cortez Road Investments & Finance Inc. ownership group was properly issued. The permit allows for the construction of 49 canal-side docks as part of the 86-home Hunters Point community being constructed along Cortez Road West east of the Cortez Bridge.

The construction of the docks is on hold until the permit dispute is resolved.

The MHC Cortez Village LLC group that owns the nearby Cortez Village Marina challenged the SWFWMD permit and claimed the addition of the Hunters Point docks would impede the safe navigability of the canal for their customers – some of whom own boats up to 38 feet long – and thus negatively impact the marina’s profitability.

When the hearing concludes, Culpepper will submit his recommended order to the water district’s governing board and that board will then issue a final order as to whether the SWFWMD permit was properly issued.

When Gobuty purchased the Hunters Point property from the Cipriani family in 2016, he also purchased the majority of the man-made canal created by the Cipriani family in the late 1950s.

The Cortez Road Investments-owned portion of the canal extends from the western boundary of the Cortez Village Marina property to the humpback bridge on 127th Street West.

While testifying on Friday, Gobuty said Cortez Road Investments obtained a controlling interest in the Cipriani family-owned portion of the canal located directly in front of the marina after MHC Cortez Village unsuccessfully tried to purchase that portion of the canal earlier in the week. The remaining portion of the canal that extends to the east is owned by the Holiday Cove RV resort.

 One-way navigation

In response to claims that the canal is dangerous, Gobuty said, “Let’s go super safe and not let the word ‘dangerous’ haunt us.”

He then elaborated on the one-way navigation concept to soon be implemented. He said traffic signals featuring red and green lights will be installed at three or more locations along the canal and will be used to control the direction in which boat traffic flows.

“They see red, they hold. They see green, they proceed,” he said, adding that similar technology is used in the Netherlands.

Gobuty said the one-way navigation would likely operate at 15-minute intervals. 30-minute intervals were also previously mentioned.

Gobuty said the managers of the nearby Buttonwood Inlet and Holiday Cove RV resorts have already been notified of the pending one-way traffic scenario and those managers said their guests would comply with the additional safety measures.

Canal tolls

Gobuty said he and his team are also working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on the installation of an overhead Automatic Vehicle Identification (AVI) toll system similar to those used on toll roads. The AVI system will be used to automatically charge Cortez Village Marina boaters for their use of the canal. Gobuty said he hopes to have the automated system in place by January.

Until then, the tolls will be collected manually using those boaters’ debit or credit cards. Gobuty said the manual toll collections and one-way navigation enforcement will begin with two pontoon barges stationed in the canal with a 14-foot space between them. Passing boaters will be asked to provide some basic information before being issued registration decals that contain bar codes that will eventually be used to levy automated tolls on the Cortez Village Marina boaters.

Gobuty said the toll might be $10-$20 per one-way trip and 100% of the toll proceeds collected manually and automatically will be donated to a local charity or charities on an ongoing basis.

Additional safety measures

During Friday’s testimony, Gobuty was asked by his attorney, Susan Martin, what steps are being taken to make the canal safer for navigation.

Gobuty noted Cortez Village Marina General Manager Skip McPadden testified several times that the canal is dangerous and would become more so with the addition of the Hunters Point docks.

During the previous testimony they gave on behalf of the marina, McPadden and boat Capt. Chris Karentz both claimed the canal is already too narrow in some places for two vessels traveling in different directions to pass side by side. McPadden and Karentz said the Hunters Point docks would further impede navigation.

During the rebuttal testimony he provided Thursday on behalf of Cortez Road Investments, boat Capt. Dane Fleming testified that the construction of the Hunters Point docks would not significantly impede canal navigation even though some portions of the canal may be too narrow for two boats to pass side by side. Fleming said in those instances, one boat needs to pull over in a wider portion of the canal and allow the other boat to pass. He also testified that the implementation of a one-way navigation system would alleviate the need for two vessels to pass side by side in the canal.

On Friday, Gobuty said he recently received a letter from the U.S. Coast Guard Station Cortez that stated the Coast Guard is not aware of a boating accident ever being reported on the canal.

Addressing visibility concerns expressed by McPadden and Karentz, Gobuty said the Hunters Point mangrove shoreline has already been trimmed by 25% according to state regulations and will be trimmed another 25% after one year has passed.

Gobuty said additional “no wake” signs have been placed in the canal and navigational mirrors were previously installed at some of the canal’s blind spots. He said boaters are also being asked to use VHF marine radio channel 9 to communicate with other boaters when approaching a blind spot or narrow portion of the canal.

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