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The Cleaning Crew

Featured Photo from The Cleaning Crew

Neighbors rally to restore some of our community’s most beautiful lakes

Named for crystal clear waters and sandy lake bottoms, the East Crystal Chain of Lakes is known as a coveted local attraction for swimming, fishing, and boating. At least, it used to be.

Set just northeast of downtown Lake Mary (between Country Club Road and the GreeneWay), the lake chain includes Amory, Bel-Air, DeForest, East Crystal, and Pine lakes. Properties in the neighborhoods of Loch Arbor, Chase Groves, Crystal Lake Estates, and Linda Lane in Lake Mary border the shores of the lakes.

“The chain touches different neighborhoods in the city of Lake Mary and unincorporated Seminole,” explains Amy Lockhart, Seminole County Commissioner, District 4, who moved to the shores of Lake Amory in 2001.

Some residents remember the days when children swam or canoed in the fresh waters. Over time, though, the lakes became overrun with invasive vegetation. Their inviting sandy shorelines were covered in brush, the once-clear waters were murky, and the bottoms were a muddy mess. The condition of the lakes eventually made recreation all but impossible, and it was bringing down property values.

“The lakes were consumed by lily pads, tussocks and mud burps [islands], woody and bristly rooted material, and hydrilla,” says resident Debbie Boone. “One of the lakes was so bad, you could even see raccoons walking on the tussocks.”

Hydrilla, an invasive weed, is prevalent in the lake chain. Not only is it ugly, the slimy weed poses a serious ecological threat by choking out native plants. Hydrilla infestations also cause oxygen depletion zones, which harm or kill fish populations.

“Hydrilla can grow up to six inches a day,” says Gloria Eby, principal environmental scientist with the Seminole County Watershed Management Division. “It’s a highly invasive exotic aquatic plant, and it’s the most recent invader, engulfing much of the chain.”

Bob Burke, who has lived on the lake chain since 1993, agrees.

“The lake is in horrible condition because of the growth of the hydrilla,” he told the Orlando Sentinel this past January. “And it will be even worse if we don’t do something about it.”

So, Bob and his neighbors did.

Concerned residents attended a community meeting led by Amy in October 2020 to discuss a variety of local issues.
“What shocked me was the majority of the conversation and questions pertained to the health and quality of our lakes,” Amy recalls. As a follow-up, she organized another meeting specifically dedicated to lake management. “We invited anyone who lived on any of the lakes.”

Out of that meeting, residents learned about a funding mechanism called a Municipal Services Benefit Unit (MSBU) that can help restore and maintain local waterways. Similar to a garbage pickup assessment, if an MSBU is approved, Seminole County assumes responsibility for the cleanup and maintenance of the waterways involved. The cost is shared by the homeowners through property taxes.

“This had never been done for the lake chain before,” says Amy, who added that Amory Lake already had its own MSBU. Many of the other individual lakes also had a singular MSBU. “But what these neighbors started to realize is that we are on a lake chain, and what one lake does and how it is maintained or polluted immediately affects the next lake in the chain.”

The residents decided to create a blanket MSBU for the entire chain. They realized it would be a financial win, too. One resident reported that a small group of neighbors once funded a cleanup effort on their own lake’s shores totaling $40,000, only to have the invasive species return.

“The MSBU allows for work to be done on a much bigger scale than the residents could afford or achieve on their own,” explains Debbie. “The cost is manageable because it’s spread among such a large group and has a workable collection process in place.”

Setting up the MSBU, though, was a lot of work.

Residents created a petition to request the MSBU to the Board of County Commissioners. It required approval by 65 percent of lake property owners. The MSBU also required an inter-local agreement from the City of Lake Mary and Seminole County, says Amy. 

Bob and Debbie, the lakefront residents, became lake liaisons coordinating with the county and communicating with their neighbors. They created a Facebook page and flyers to share information, handed out hats and signs proclaiming Save Our Chain of Lakes, and knocked on countless doors in an effort to collect enough signatures.

By November 2020, their efforts resulted in more than enough signatures – 72 percent of those who voted said yes. And on January 26, 2021, the chain of lakes MSBU was approved by a unanimous vote from the Board of County Commissioners.
Cleanup began almost immediately. Huge machinery arrived to begin the process of harvesting lake debris on the weekend following the January 26 public hearing. Digging began that following Monday. 

The next step was the removal and treatment of the hydrilla. Residents were excited to see the process take shape. One exclaimed, “I’m anxious to see the hydrilla being attacked!” Others posted photos and videos of the process and results on social media. The overwhelming amount of debris removed created cleaner shorelines, clearer water, and even more beautiful views.

Full completion of the project is slated for May, just in time for summer fun.

“What’s neat is that the residents didn’t get wrapped up in it being just my lake or my shoreline,” says Amy. “It was bigger than political affiliation or socioeconomic status. It was all for one and one for all.”

And now, thanks to the group efforts of concerned neighbors, the East Crystal Chain of Lakes is beginning to earn its name once more.

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