It never hurts to at least ask, even when the answer is likely to confirm the Lakeland City Commission is being drawn into a brewing battle between hunters and landowners that could have ramifications statewide and beyond.
The commission Monday unanimously agreed to solicit Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office for a formal opinion on whether state law has “expressly approved hunting in the city of Lakeland.”
It’s a shot in the dark, said Assistant City Attorney Jerrod Simpson, acknowledging that state law says hunting is “expressly approved” on any “public water body with public access” and can only be regulated by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission.
But, he added, he’s been “trying to find a rule that corresponds with that statement” without success. The FWC takes “the position that … all public property is open for hunting except what is expressly restricted from hunting. They do not approve (hunting areas). They restrict areas” from hunting.
City Attorney Palmer Davis and Simpson updated commissioners on the city’s response to complaints by lakeside homeowners about three early-morning January duck hunts on the south end of Lake Parker, the largest of 38 named lakes in Lakeland.
Residents have addressed the issue at least four times before the commission in the last two months. They maintain hunters got within seven feet from the shoreline on occasion, used illegal shot, left duck carcasses behind and trespassed on private boat ramps.
Lakeland Police called by residents all three times issued no citations and FWC agents said the only potential crime they saw the one time they observed the wingshooters was hunter harassment by a homeowner with a bullhorn.
Several lakeside residents said they were stunned to learn hunting is “allowed” in city limits. They described the sights and sounds of the hunts as “inappropriate” near a residential area, and being disturbed at dawn by the sounds of gunshot on a Saturday and a Sunday.
In response to lakeside landowners’ requests for the city to take action, Davis in February confirmed only the FWC can impose hunting restrictions on state waters.
However, he said, the FWC offers a process that allows municipalities to petition for authorization to create restricted hunting areas, known as RHAs. Commissioners in March asked him to look into the process.
That request has rippled across a nationwide hunting rights advocacy spectrum already on alert after thwarting the introduction of “enhanced” RHA rules last year that remain unheard by the FWC.
The proposed new rules would prohibit taking game in an enhanced RHA with a firearm within 300 feet of a dwelling by anyone other than the landowner or without written permission to do so from the landowner.
The new rules are vigorously opposed by Delta Waterfowl, United Waterfowlers, the Sportsmen’s Alliance, Safari Club International, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Artemis Sportswoman, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and National Wildlife Federation, among others.
Representatives from all the groups told LkldNow they are prepared to legally challenge any effort by the FWC to adopt “enhanced” RHAs and by Lakeland — or any Florida municipality — to create a RHA.
The FWC has only approved four RHAs since the petition process was established in 1997. The latest was in Cassleberry, near Orlando, in 2019, where housing developments are crowded along the shorelines of several small lakes that are either “privately-owned and city-owned lands and waters.”
That’s not the case on 2,181-acre Lake Parker, where hunting by state law is permitted, meaning the city has no enforcement capacity in regulating the otherwise legal activity “unless we put in for a restricted hunting area,” Simpson said.
In the interim, Davis said, the city could solicit an opinion from Moody’s office on whether what Florida law doesn’t say about “approving” hunting, and what the FWC does say and do in restricting it, means the state has “expressly approved hunting in the city of Lakeland.”
Earlier this month, commissioners asked Davis to determine the legality of posting signs near Lake Parker public boat ramps warning hunters the area “may be baited.” State and federal law prohibits hunting in areas where migratory birds are “baited,” or being fed.
Such a tact would be fraught with challenges, Davis said, noting “the city is preempted by state law to attempt to regulate firearms through (its) noise ordinance” and that he was “skeptical” FWC and federal agents would recognize such signs as legal and, thus, “enforcement would be a problem.”
Simpson said he could not find anything in state or federal law that makes feeding ducks illegal, but warned, “If people are feeding with the intent of exercising some type of veto” of hunting, they risk being charged under the state’s hunter harassment law.
The city attorneys gave their update after Winter Haven-based Lake Region Audubon Society President Reinier Munguia told commissioners there is “a fairly good population” of endangered Everglade snail kites that breed along Lake Parker.
Munguia said he recently found a severely injured snail kite on the west shores of Lake Parker that died two days later. The bird had embedded lead shot in it, he said, meaning it was likely shot by hunters.
Waterfowl hunting with lead shot is illegal. FWC agents observing the hunters on Lake Parker issued written warnings for banned lead shot in one boat, but the shot wasn’t chambered.
Munguia said residents want him “to try to mediate here” and said lakeside residents and duck hunters may be able to find an accommodation similar to arrangements regarding “jet skis” on Lake Somerset, a rookery in southeast Lakeland.
Commissioner Stephanie Madden said allegations made by lakeside residents about the January hunts describe illegal acts under “the laws that are on the books” already and, if true, were crimes by “bad actors.”
Lakeland is unlikely to get any help in creating an RHA from Florida lawmakers or the FWC, she said. “The state feels very strongly about supporting hunters,” she said.
“There is nothing clear or easy about this issue,” Davis said.
One thing, however, appears to be coming into focus, Mayor Bill Mutz said.
“Probably signs alone is not enough,” he said, adding the city is “probably a month” away from figuring out if it will petition the FWC for a restricted hunting area.