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Jacksonville leaders meet with state regulators on child drownings in retention ponds

Retention pond safety meeting
Retention pond safety meeting

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After the drowning deaths of two children with autism this year, Jacksonville City Council members are meeting with state regulators to figure out how to move forward with new safety requirements for retention ponds across Duval County.

It’s an effort that could touch hundreds of neighborhoods.

The city is still trying to inventory how many of its retention ponds are without barriers, an effort that started at the beginning of June. Most of the retention ponds in the city are privately owned and managed.

The drowning of 4-year-old Gavin Douyon in June was the second time in more than a month where a young child with autism died in a neighborhood retention pond. In the last six years, other children across Northeast Florida have died in similar bodies of water. The youngest just two years old in Baker County.

Councilmember Ju’Coby Pittman and fellow councilmember LeAnna Cumber made a call to action over increasing concerns with retention ponds’ safety last August. The legislators renewed that call to action in June after Douyon’s death.

But the two have yet to introduce new legislation changing safety requirements.

Pittman said over the last few weeks, they have met with officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), which has its own rules regulating when fencing is required for retention ponds.

“They talked about making the barriers more of a marsh, so if someone goes in or tries to fish it would be easier for them to get out rather than being drowned,” said Pittman. “With recommendations like that, the only thing is the maintenance in keeping that. We have to make sure the development, the homeowners association is willing to take that cost on.”

SJRWMD said the agency is not currently considering any “one-size-fits-all approach to fencing requirements,” instead suggesting city governments can adopt ordinances that are stricter.

Right now, the agency only requires ponds with side slopes steeper than 4-feet horizontally by 1-foot vertically to be fenced off or restricted from public access.

After Douyon’s death, the agency went back to the Jacksonville neighborhood to reinspect the retention pond where he drowned. The pond met the district’s criteria, according to the inspection report.

Councilmember Pittman said stakeholders, including the Duval County Public School District, hope to meet again in the coming weeks. Pittman said along with looking at changes within the city codes they are hoping to launch more campaigns to raise awareness about the potential dangers of retention ponds for children.

“As you know, it takes time to develop anything that is successful. We are hoping and praying that no tragedy happens,” Pittman said.

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.