Burrowing owls hold up school building project at South Plantation High
The creatures and their state-protected love nests have turned into a nemesis for construction workers and maybe taxpayers watching bottom lines.
Out at South Plantation High School, the smallish birds have forced a year delay and $100,000 in extra expenses to construct a parking lot and regional football field. At nearby Tropical Elementary, part of a playground has been off limits to children for years because of the burrows.
A special permit is being pulled so the owls at Tropical could be relocated this summer to build a new cafeteria.
"I've said we could build them a million-dollar luxury condo and it'd be cheaper," said Sharon Zamojski, a school construction manager.
State law forbids disturbing parents-to-be or their newborns during their mating and nesting period, Feb. 15 through July 10, said Rick Rosa, also a project manager.
Banned from frightening them off during the period, work on South Plantation's Regional Athletic Facility at Peters Road and Florida's Turnpike ground to a halt last year when the birds moved in and refused to fly the coop.
Native to the western United States -- and Florida -- athene cunicularia are all too familiar to builders in Broward and Palm Beach counties who find them in baseball diamonds, municipal golf courses and any other open fields.
They've burrowed so often at Florida Atlantic University's campus in Boca Raton that the school adopted them as their team mascot -- although the unimposing nickname of the "Burrowing Owls" was bulked up into the more intimidating "Fighting Owls" in 2000.
Driven from their natural rural habitat by development, the wise old owls gravitate toward educational complexes because school grounds often have large open spaces.
"We make mounds of nice, loose dirt. ... A dug-up athletic field or fresh fill is a perfect situation for them," Zamojski said.
That's what happened at South Plantation High School, where a $2.3 million athletic complex was planned.
Contractors broke ground early last year and a few weeks later in February the owls moved into three locations that stopped the whole project. Complying with the law, the school erected a 50-foot fence around the impromptu maternity wards.
Workers regularly peered through the fence to see if the visitors had left, while South Plantation teams practiced in a grassy field in the back of the school.
Once the mating and nesting period ended, the school still had to wait until August for a permit to evict the owls. Finally, before the eviction notice was needed, a state game official poked a mirror down the burrows and found the holes abandoned.
By then, the stalled builder had racked up overhead costs of at least $100,000; the final figure is still being tallied, said Zamojski, who added the school system is checking to see if some of the extra cost of protecting the birds could be recouped from the state.
Steel and concrete had become scarce enough to incur delays just in obtaining materials, plus prices had soared.
Now Zamojski hopes the parking lot will open in April and the stadium by the time classes resume in August.
Tropical Elementary Principal Erik Anderson is taking a cue from the high school's plight.
The school plans to build a new cafeteria this summer and turn the current kitchen into classrooms. So Tropical is already applying for a state permit to relocate the long-time residents as soon as mating season ends.
Meanwhile, work has resumed at South Plantation High, where crews turning over earth are warily keeping watch, Zamojski said.
"The mating season began again Feb. 15," she noted.
Bill Hirschman can be reached at bhirschman@ sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4513.