LAKE PLACID - More than a 100 concerned Lake June residents packed a room Wednesday, demanding to know what the state is doing to control a weed they say is overtaking their lake, degrading property values and ruining lake recreation.
Resident Hoz Compton said his beach is so covered with the Illinois pond weed, his grandchildren don't want to go there anymore.
Peter Johnson was concerned about lake property values from what he said is an explosion of pond weed growth in the last three to six months.
It has overtaken his shoreline, even growing under his boathouse.
"I can't get past the weed line," he complained. "I won't go out on the lake unless it's a calm day. Right now it's growing so fast, everyone's going to have to get an airboat."
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's biologist Kelle Sullivan tried to answer questions and explain how FWC controls aquatic plants in public lakes and how its lake management plan is shaped by the kind of vegetation in question - non-native or native to the state.
Non-native plants such as water hyacinths and hydrilla have an unfair advantage, she explained, and have to be kept in check or they will crowd out everything else.
"They march across the water body and take it over," she said.
Native plants, on the other hand, co-exist with the other vegetation, occupy their "own niche" without taking over a lake.
Turns out, the weed vexing Lake June property owners is native.
"Illinois pond weed is not hydrilla," she added. "It's never going to completely cover the lake."
Sullivan didn't know why the plant had proliferated in recent months but suggested it might be because the water levels had been up and that could have increased the nutrient levels.
"It's in response to some kind of environmental change. Once that stabilizes, they will fall back," she said. "The lake provides everything but the nutrients. The nutrients come from somewhere else."
She said the FWC had convened the meeting Wednesday to get feedback from affected people and a better sense of how they use the lake - to decide how to deal with the situation.
Sullivan said after the meeting that about 30 lake residents also have been issued free permits to use herbicides to get rid of the pond weed within a certain "access corridor.'
Those who want to yank it out with their hand or use a harvester don't need a permit. One suggestion she made to the crowd is an effort by the state to work with the Highlands County Lakes Association toward creating a blank permit for lake residents.
Some of the audience members were not mollified by any of the explanations or suggestions.
"I don't think you really care," one resident yelled out.
"I think the lake is toxic. It's dangerous. It's an accident waiting to happen," said another resident, who said a child almost drowned because of the weed and how a boater had to drop his engine in the lake because it got tangled up in the weed.
She suggested that signs be put up everywhere, warning people that the lake is a hazard.
Resident Carol Howard felt it was not an "individual property issue."
"It's a systems' issue. You need to take a look at it from a lakes management perspective," she said.
Steve Bastardi, who also sits on the Lake Placid Town Council, said the weed's proliferation was a serious concern and could affect the local economy that depends on its lakes for revenue.
Bastardi was not happy with what he was hearing from state officials.
He said he was sensing the state wanted residents "to live with the pond weed."
"We want to get rid of it," he declared, so the situation did not get worse.
Some cautioned for some restraint.
Biologist Paul Gray with the Audubon Society pointed out that the lake was an important habitat for "a lot of things."
He said the state had to be mindful of that and manage it in a way that didn't affect the wildlife that also depend on it.
Dick Reaney, with the Highlands County Lakes Association, cautioned about over-treating the lake like the Department of Environmental Protection did with its hydrilla treatment in the 1990s.
"They nuked the lake," he said. "You couldn't find a weed in the lake."
Meanwhile, residents should expect to hear back from FWC in about two weeks, Sullivan said.
Resident Peggy Gray, who said she is going to petition the Highlands County Property Appraiser's Office's Value Adjustment Board to lower the assessed value of her home because of the pond weed, said she was looking at hearing a solution at the Wednesday meeting.
She said the FWC has been aware of the problem for some time, and was hoping to hear what action plan they had in mind.
Resident Joy Post cautioned the FWC to do something or some residents who take the matter in their own hands might end up doing something detrimental to the lake.