OKEECHOBEE — Viking Estates, also known as “the Prairie” is a residential area, not a recreational area, Viking property owners were told at Thursday’s meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission. Real estate ads depicting Viking is an “anything goes” area for riding ATVs, shooting guns, etc. are false.
Conflicts between some Viking homeowners who want peace and quiet and those who visit the Prairie on the weekends to ride ATVs, party and shoot guns were once again before the Okeechobee County Commission at their Feb. 23 meeting. Caught in the middle are property owners who want the right to ride ATVs safely on the shell roads which their special taxing district maintains.
Before opening the hearing to public comments, Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs explained the roads in the Viking area are not county roads. The county is not responsible for maintenance.
He said Coquina Water District accepted the roads in order to maintain the drainage associated with the water district.
Coquina has requested the county sheriff’s office enforce traffic control and public safety, he said.
John Merriman who said he has property on N.W. 34th Street and is building “a third home” there said his five children enjoy riding ATVs.
“You cannot just shut things down,” he said.
“I just spent 20 grand on a bike, for what? For my kids to just sit there and wash it?” he asked.
“We are having some terrible problems,” said Fred Shatz who said he has been a full-time resident of a home on the Prairie for 13 years. He added his comments “don’t include every ATV rider out there.
“It’s unfortunate that people bought lots out there with the idea they can roam around and go hunting where ever they want.
It’s all private property. You can’t hunt on somebody else’s land. If they want to hunt on their own lot, fine, but they can’t cross over fences and cross into lots that other people own.
“These ATV riders from the coast or from the cities, they have an unfortunate and persistent belief that it is a public recreation area, and it is not,” he continued.
“These ATV drivers have large outdoor parties with very loud music. There’s gunfire. There’s alcohol.
“There’s riding up and down private streets up to one or two o’clock in the morning,” he said.
“My wife one time was coming home from town and she saw a group of riders doing donuts, destroying the surface of the shellrock road. She politely asked them to stop doing that. They immediately started circling her car and throwing dirt on her car. It scared her quite badly.
“My neighbor’s house was hit by gunfire,” he continued,
He said unsupervised teenagers on ATVs have driven at the horses, causing the horses to spook which endangers both the horses and their riders.
“Some people put up fences or signs. They are routinely torn down,” he said.
“Tensions are really rising,” he said.
“We really appreciate the sheriff coming out,” he said. “They are doing a fine job trying to control the gunfire and the drinking.”
“If these ATV riders want to ride on their own land, that’s fine. But when they cross into other people’s land, that’s trespassing,” he said.
“Some of these lands are protected wetlands by the EPA. They are turning them into mudholes,” Mr. Shatz added.
“There is a problem with the weekend warriors going out there,” said Robert Stark. He said he sees pickup trucks doing donuts, tearing up the roads.
“We all want to get along,” he said. “They ride horses. We ride bikes. None of us spook anybody.
“There is a problem with out-of-towners going out there, not landowners, people who don’t own property,” he said.
Viking property owner Michael Vincent said these are not public roads.
There is no mail delivery or garbage pickup on the roads. There are no speed limit signs or stop signs, he said.
“The residents and property owners pay taxes to Coquina,” he said.
“A lot of people who come out there who do not own property are the ones giving us a bad name,” said Mr. Vincent. “People who come out on the weekends bring their bikes out, they tear things up. They leave a lot of garbage behind. As residents, we clean up after them.”
“Our property is fenced off. We do appreciate law enforcement out there,” said Casey Rogers.
“Our fence has been cut. Our fence has been run over. We’ve had to go out there and repair it every time,” she said. She said in one case, the fence was run over by a truck, not a 4-wheeler.
“We have bikes. My son is 18 years old. He’s been riding out there since he was 5,” she added, asking that Viking property owners be allowed to ride their ATVs on the shell roads maintained by Coquina.
“We should be able to ride on those roads,” she said.
She said law enforcement should focus on the people who don’t own property.
“If they don’t own property out there, they shouldn’t be there,” he said.
Viking homeowner Arthur King asked if there is a way create some kind of ID card or license “that shows we are registered to be there as opposed to the weekend warriors coming in, trashing the place and then just going home.
“If someone is out there being stupid, they need to be pulled over. I don’t care if they live there or not,” he said. “But if you are just out there tooling around and an officer was to pull you over, and you show this ID, maybe that could help alleviate some of the confusion,” he suggested.
“I have two children. When we are out riding they have their helmets on.
We abide by the laws,” said David Tyler. “I see on social media people on the horses say the ATVs should not be on trails on other people’s property. But it’s OK for them to be on horses on other people’s property?”
“I have been approached by two people, two females, who are afraid to appear here because people have threatened them,” said Chairman Burroughs. “I find that appalling that people out there are afraid to speak their piece.”
He read into the record two letters from property owners who said they have been threatened with retaliation.
“It is obvious to the most casual observer that our area is overrun with ATV riders during weekends and holidays and their view is that Viking Estates is a recreational getaway to include alcohol, parties and loud music, Coquina Water District’s road destruction, trespassing and gunfire, including illegal automatic weapons, at all times of the day and night. Often this includes drunken adults moving with underage children on the back of their ATVs,” one letter states.
“There is a group of riders who own property, a small number of full time residents, and they attract relatives, friends and ‘friends of friends,’ to the Viking Estates.
“A good number own an acre and a quarter lots with no improvements. They pay far less tax than do actual residents in the Viking Estates.
“If property owners want to enjoy ATVs on their property, that’s fine.
But claiming that their taxes paid to Coquina, which are used for road maintenance, gives them the right to go anywhere in the Viking Estates is invalid. More actual residents of Viking Estates don’t want ATVs to have free access to the roads their taxes help maintain.
“Then of course, there is the issue of trespassing. The ATV riders who own just property and are not residents seem to forget that everywhere they ride, that is not their property, belongs to someone else and they are trespassing.
“Owning a lot in Viking Estates does not give someone the right to trespass on other people’s property,” the letter states.
“We ask that the board of county commissioners not be swayed from the protection of residents in Viking Estates by false arguments of possible county expense for road maintenance. The residents ask that the sheriff’s department not be curtailed in their efforts to prevent trespassing, road destruction and confrontations between residents of Viking Estates and the undisciplined weekend ATV visitors.
“It is unfortunate for the owners of unimproved lots who bought these lots because of the false advertising that this would allow an anything goes attitude — hunting, ATV riding, trespassing, etc. — on other people’s property.
“It is also unfortunate that there’s no middle ground in this issue. The county cannot allow unlicensed alcohol sales, loud parties, indiscriminate gunfire, and trespassing by some people and not by others. If Okeechobee County gives an inch, the out-of-county weekend warriors will take a mile,” the letter warns.
Another letter, also read into the record, supported the sheriff department’s efforts.
“It has come to our attention that the Prairie locals will be coming in front of the board to discuss ATV issues on the Prairie.
“We would like it known that the reason no one is there to oppose them is due to threats of retaliation that have been made apparent, people’s fences torn down, livestock messed with, donuts done in front of homes as well as verbal confrontations from some,” the letter stated.
“We have been watching the BOCC meetings. We have only had one resident speak in front of the board. The rest were property owners only, and only to raise hell on their 4-wheelers. The sheriff knows how bad things are on the prairie with drugs, underage drinking parties and riding 4-wheelers all night drunk. We can never thank the sheriff enough for all they are doing.
“The people complaining are the ones that are breaking the law and making it hard on the residents.
“Most of these people only pay taxes on empty lots when they have RVs and sheds on them. They want us to sign a petition to say this is what we want and it is not. Please allow the sheriff to do his job. These people are really only a new riding club trying to strong-arm the Board of County Commissioners,” the letter states.
“We as homeowners can’t even go to a Coquina meeting. A man … told us to move and got in all of our faces. We called and had backup law enforcements,” the letter continues.
“We don’t control what the mandate of the sheriff is in making sure the law is not broken in our county,” said Chairman Burroughs. “We don’t tell him what to do and what not to do. We give him the money in order to protect the community.
“We are spending an inordinate amount of money up there,” he said.
“The number of calls we are getting up there is rapidly using up the budget.
“To threaten people is not appropriate,” he said.
“The residents of this county are God-fearing and law abiding residents. We don’t threaten people,” he said.
“It is not up to us to dictate to the sheriff of this county,” said Commissioner Kelly Owens.
“Nobody wants to ruin anybody’s fun,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper, adding that false advertising depicted Viking Estates as an “anything goes” recreation area has created many of the problems.
“This is not a recreation area. It’s a residential area,” he said.
“I know of at least one horse that was shot by a stray bullet,” said Commissioner Culpepper.
“I know people who have bullet holes currently in the sides of their sheds or their houses,” he said.
“I had a lady send me a photograph of a camper trailer that on Monday the camper went out, pulled their tank and drained the sewage from their holding tank into the canal,” he said.
He said another resident told him she woke up and found two guys passed out in her yard. “They came in her gate and parked under a tree,” he said.
“Eighty or 90 percent of the problem is coming from outside,” he said.
“There is no place a sheriff’s deputy can’t go if they are called,” said Commissioner Culpepper. “It doesn’t have to be a county road.”
“This is not a new issue,” said Commissioner David Hazellief. “I was on the board from 1996 to 2004, and we had this situation several times.
“The situation is, this is a residential neighborhood. I’m sorry that a lot of you were sold properties from people who said bring your 4-wheelers, bring your family, have fun.
“You can on your lot. Come to Okeechobee, camp on your lot. Do what you want to on your lot within the limits of the law.
“But once you cross your property line, you are trespassing,” he said.
“I had someone tell me, there’s no signs there. You don’t have to have a sign. You don’t have signs over where you live on the coast. Your neighbor knows where your lot line is and you do too.
“Our sheriff and his staff have stepped up to the plate and try to get some law enforcement there because of the complaints we’ve had from the citizens who do live there,” he continued. “I support him wholeheartedly.”
“I’ve been all over the Prairie. We used to have a sizeable camp there,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread.
“We had enough lots that we contained all our fun. Nobody ever went riding outside the gate,” he said.
“I think the problem now is you have this ‘Be a man, buy land,’ guy selling the place like it’s the wild west,” he said.
There are a lot of residents who live there with their families.
They are the ones who are asking the sheriff’s department for help, he said.
“I am sure if everybody rode their ATV nice and quietly over to their neighbor, there wouldn’t be a problem. It seems like it’s turned into almost like a road course,” he said.
“Nobody wants to take anybody’s fun away,” he said.
“Maybe it’s a small handful of people who have gotten out of hand, but they’ve sullied the whole lot,” he said.
County attorney Cassels stated that in 1995 Coquina passed a resolution asking assistance from the county for help in protecting the lives and safety of property owners and to protect the roads and swales.
He said ID cards would probably not be practical as the property is accessible from public roads, “unless you put a gatehouse on every crossroad, which of course wouldn’t be practical,” he said.
“Back in 1995, Coquina did pass a resolution requesting assistance from the county to try to control what they considered something necessary for public health safety and welfare,” the attorney said.
That resolution asked the county sheriff’s office to protect the roads and to ban discharge of firearms on the property.
“I’m not against riding ATVs on the Prairie,” said Sheriff Noel Stephen.
“This has been a progressively worsening problem,” he said.
Sheriff May was called by the Coquina Water Management District requesting enhanced law enforcement, he said. He added that he was at that meeting and the sheriff’s office was asked to enforce the traffic laws on Coquina’s roads, swales and ditches.
“Sheriff May and I had this discussion at the Micco Bluff Civic Center 12 years ago,” he said. “We had probably about 100 folks at the civic center at the time.
“We have tried selective law enforcement,” he said. “It’s not effective.
“I can’t provide service out there with everybody riding around with no way to tell who the problems are and who the problems aren’t.
“There’s probably 300 homes out there now. This time 12 years ago, there might have been 100.
“Take the people who own property who are legitimate law-abiding, bring your kids out, recreate. I don’t have a problem with it.
“That small minute element is ruining it for everybody else,” he said.
“I can’t continue to send four, five, six officers a night to the Prairie to deal with a problem that we can’t find once we get there,” he said.
“I’m all for a happy medium. Supply me with that,” he said.
“I’ve got 30 years of experience with your sheriff’s office dealing with this very problem. I don’t know what the answer is.
“Right now, as the sheriff, being fiscally responsible, I just have to shut it down until we can get a handle on it,” he said.
“We deemed those roads open, public access roads,” he said.
“We’re shutting down all ATV riding on the roads unless they are licensed, properly equipped vehicles (based on Florida Statute requirements for driving a motorized vehicle on a public road),” he said.
“Coquina had requested law enforcement,” said Chairman Burroughs.
“The sheriff has the responsibility to do what the resolution had requested,” he continued.
“If Coquina doesn’t want to do that anymore, maybe they need to pass another resolution and let folks do what they want.
“As it stands today, our sheriff is the law enforcement. He is abiding by that resolution,” said Chairman Burroughs.
Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org