As we close out 2016, we take a look back over the year to see what made the news in the past year. What were Islanders talking about? What events had an impact on our lives on Estero Island? Let’s take a stroll through some of the highlights of 2016.
The year began with the Fort Myers Beach Fire District in the news for both happy and sad news. The District bid good-bye to Betty Goodacre, a fierce fire district advocate who served on the Board of Commissioners for many years. A new Fire Chief, Matthew Love, selected in early January would take the reins of the district in late March.
All eyes were on downtown Fort Myers Beach in January, as developer Tom Torgerson of TPI Hospitality met with the community in the first of what would be four public meetings to gather input and provide details on his plan, Grand Resorts, Fort Myers Beach. The project called for a parking garage, four hotels, conference space, retail space, a coastal protection system and rerouting of Estero Blvd. Community reaction was mixed and became the focus of Town Council elections that would take place in March.
The arts flourish during season, particularly the musical arts and January saw five concerts ranging from pianists Pedro Che and Manuel Molina to Christian artist Bob Fraumann to former Temptations singer Glenn Leonard.
Town Council chose the Chamber of Commerce to provide an information booth in Time Square and unanimously removed the seasonal parking lot designation from the Land Development Code. They also heard from disgruntled residents of Hercules Street upset over the removal of the dock at the public bay access on that street. Residents of Coconut, Delmar and a handful of other bayside streets with public accesses would later ask council for changes to “their” accesses. The Stormwater Utility started the year on the council’s docket and would make multiple appearances throughout the year continuing into 2017.
The Mound House delighted residents and visitors with the expanded educational programs offered after the museum’s Grand Opening held in late 2015. After 8 months of effort to revise how beach chair vendors operate, council approved a policy limiting who can rent chairs on the beach and where they may be located.
Water releases from Lake Okeechobee, normally a summer issue, flowed onto the front page in January when the area had the wettest January on record, leading to record water releases to the Caloosahatchee River dropping the saline level and bringing high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus to our bay and gulf waters, and turning them brown during our tourist season. Efforts by advocates and elected officials brought light to the problem and led to more water being released from the lake to the south temporarily and fast tracking of several water storage projects. The amount of water released is regulated by the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), and efforts to alter that were unsuccessful.
The Town’s waterline and the County’s Estero Blvd projects were in full swing in January with Estero Blvd torn up for first the waterline and utilities on the gulf side, then the sewer line on the bay side of the road. By year’s end the project would be mostly complete in the area from Crescent Street to Miramar, just past Key Estero Shops, with new, wider sidewalks on each side of the road and a center turn lane.
Campaign season was in full swing as seven candidates competed for two Town Council seats that would be on the March ballot: Dan Andre, Dennis Boback, Bruce Butcher, Tracey Gore, Jack Green, Suzanne Katt and Ber Stevenson.
The area’s water woes continued with even Governor Rick Scott getting involved when he asked the Army Corps to send more water south from the lake to relieve the burden on the coastal estuaries fed by the Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River.
Beach businesses in the road construction zone met with Mayor Anita Cereceda and County Commissioner Larry Kiker to seek relief from problems related to the Estero Blvd projects. Some described the project’s effect on their business as “worse than the 2010 BP oil spill.”
Beach life wasn’t all water and campaign events, the Fort Myers Beach Yacht Club, established in 1953, held their Commodore’s Ball while the Fort Myers Beach Community Foundation threw a retro Beach Ball.
Zika entered our vocabulary as the virus spread by mosquitos and sexual contact made headlines due to its link to birth defects. Mosquito control agencies, including the Fort Myers Beach Mosquito Control District increased education efforts to prevent mosquito breeding in residential areas. No cases have originated in Lee County though several people have returned from travel with the virus.
Visions of the Past, a local history walk provided by the Friends of Matanzas Pass Preserve, entertained and informed at the Preserve. The Fort Myers Beach Art Association Gallery continued hosting art shows and classes delighting residents and visitors.
With March, the island’s busiest month comes the Shrimp Festival. Sponsored by the Fort Myers Beach Lions Club, the parade, expo, shrimp dinners, Queen Pageant and Shrimp eating contest, draw thousands to Fort Myers Beach each March. While some initial concern was voiced as to whether the parade would follow the traditional route from the Beach Library to Lynn Hall Park, all was resolved and the parade continued as expected.
Water releases from Lake O finally began dropping, though efforts continued to find ways to store and move water from the lake anywhere but the coastal estuaries, where it was having disastrous affect.
After several months in limbo, members of the Bay Oaks Recreation Campus Advisory Board were reappointed by Town Council following rumors that Bay Oaks continued existence was in question. An effort to create an independent taxing district for Bay Oaks was floated, but hasn’t gained much traction. A new group, Friends of Bay Oaks, formed and is working to promote and support the community center.
Newcomer Tracey Gore and former council member Dennis Boback won seats on Town Council in an election that drew nearly 58% of registered island voters to the polls, more than any recent election on the island. Boback was chosen as Mayor by the seated council. Eighteen of twenty-one Town Charter referendum question were approved. Changes included abolishing the 3-year limit on debt. Requiring 3 votes to take any official action and making council members subject to recall if they interfere with Town Staff.
After six years of service on Town Council, Alan Mandel left Town Council, as did Dan Andre after 3 ½ years on the dais. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade turned the south end of the island green as neighborhood groups, floats and St. Patrick’s Day royalty paraded from Santini Marina Plaza to Ascension Church.
The Fire District’s Property Registration Ordinance became law on March 1,2016, requiring the owners of transient, vacation, short-term, timeshare and non-owner occupied two family homes in the fire district, register with the district.
The April 1st edition of the Island Sand Paper brought a few chuckles as writers went full-on April Fool’s Day with stories about a monorail, an Everglades Theme Park and a new Trump hotel on Fort Myers Beach. It is rumored that the April 1st article on the Cubs spring training facility moving to Lee County may have been the motivating factor in the club’s 2016 World Championship!
Those who arrive at Fort Myers Beach by boat and make their temporary home in the Town’s mooring field were feted at the annual Cruiser Appreciation Day in early April. With 70 mooring balls, the anchorage hosts an ever-changing eclectic group of cruisers.
The Library Board, operating with two empty seats due to resignations continued to wait on the Governors office to appoint replacements. That would finally happen in October when Ed Scott and George Ballantyne were appointed to the seven-member board.
A proposed new development on San Carlos Island, Bay Harbour, including a marina, parking garage and 14-story residence drew dozens of concerned residents, leading the hearing examiner to add three additional days of public comment. The examiner would eventually recommend in October that the county not approve the zoning change and variance needed for the project. In November the Board of County Commissioners would delay their discussion until February 2017.
In reaction to the TPI project on Fort Myers Beach, the Bay Harbour project on San Carlos Island and water quality concerns, a new Beach Area Civic Association (BACA) formed. Another group has begun investigating the feasibility of creating another ‘arches’ over the roadway, re-creating the iconic shell arches removed when the skybridge was built in the late 1970’s.
The Grand Resorts FMB concept was tabled in April by Tom Torgerson and TPI who indicated that they would develop a new concept for the property TPI owns in downtown Fort Myers Beach.
Facing cancellation, 4th of July fireworks were saved when council extended a deadline for community participation and several business owners worked with the Chamber of Commerce to hold fundraisers to raise over $25,000.
The 10th Annual Fort Myers Beach Film Festival brought filmmakers, actors and film lovers to the event that included dozens of movie screenings.
Turtle nesting season officially began May 1st, though the beach saw the first next about a week earlier. The season would break the beach turtle nest record with 92 nests, by about 20 nests.
Members of the Marine Resources Task Force planted hundreds of sea oats along public access areas and willing beachfront properties to retain sand and help with erosion.
The Town’s new Historic Properties program recognized their first four properties in May. Several more would be recognized in the fall.
The 21st Annual Taste of the Beach brought thousands to Old San Carlos Blvd in early May to enjoy the best culinary arts the beach has to offer.
Town Council approved an application for a Florida Department of Environmental Protection State Revolving Fund loan to cover the cost of the Town’s waterline project.
The Beach Fire District would receive a top 2% rating by the Insurance Standards Organization (ISO), the highest rating the district had ever received.
A plane that went down in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942 during a training mission was the focus of a special Memorial Day service at the Fort Myers Beach VFW.
Tom Torgerson and TPI began meeting with focus groups to discuss a new downtown concept in May as concerns about the blighted look of the downtown area grew.
Little League season wrapped up in late May after a busy two-month season. Concern about nesting shorebirds led to warnings to give nests and resting birds a wide berth over Memorial Day weekend.
Fort Myers Beach Elementary Principal Larry Wood along with teachers Kathy Brindise and Cathy Smith retired after education careers that combined totaled over 100 years.
Town Manager Don Stilwell was fired “for cause” on June 3 with a split 3-2 vote for what Mayor Dennis Boback termed “nonfeasance.” At the same meeting, the council discussed the mounting unpaid bills related to the waterline project, which were waiting on the Florida DEP loan process. Jim Steele was selected as Interim Manager. Boback would eventually change his motion to termination “without cause” and Stilwell was paid his accrued personal leave, 20 weeks of severance and attorney’s fees.
Dredging of Matanzas Pass began. A permit to dredge Big Carlos Pass at the south end of the island was in the application process and would be approved in December.
With Lake O water releases rising during rainy season, 19 counties in South Florida gathered to discuss how to pool their efforts to have the most effect.
The Town of Fort Myers Beach faced a shortfall in payments from Florida Light & Power after FPL began deducting a portion of the monthly amount of Public Service Tax that FPL collects and passes on to the Town. In November 2015, FPL realized they had been overcharging customers to the tune of about $450,000 total, and passing it to the Town. FPL corrected customer bills, issuing credits and asked the Town to repay the overage. When the Town refused, FP&L began deducting $12,700 from each payment to the Town.
Town Council continues to wrestle with the stormwater and waterline projects and began working on the 2016-2017 budget.
The 4th of July parade and fireworks went off without a hitch after months of concern regarding funding and road construction. The 5th of July beach clean up, sponsored by the Fort Myers Beach Community Foundation, Keep Lee County Beautiful and the Lani Kai Resort had everything cleaned up the next morning and ready for summer visitors. A similar effort is held each January 1st following New Year’s Eve fireworks.
The Beach Library seeking to become a facility fully powered by Solar Power (Total Solar) took another step in that direction when they installed a SolarChill Thermodynamic system for a six-month trial. After agreeing to explore the competitive negotiation process for the Total Solar project, Beach Library Director Dr. Leroy Hommerding announced in July that he wished to wait a bit longer before proceeding with the Total Solar project.
A blue-green algae outbreak on the east coast of Florida let the Town to post a water quality condition report on their website in late July, indicating that there had been no blue-green algae on the beach.
Several meetings were held with residents who lived near a handful of bay accesses, providing them the opportunity to speak to Town staff about what they’d like to see at the access in their neighborhood. The Bayside Park (at the end of Old San Carlos Blvd) meeting resulted in a suggestion that a splash pad fountain be considered for the area, to replace the oft broken current fountain, which met with enthusiasm from attendees.
The Grouper Grapple, a fishing tournament devoted to a great cause – wounded veterans – returned to the beach in August, providing a group of veterans with a weekend on the water in SWFL.
Work continued on the Estero Blvd projects with the center lane drainage system being installed. The pervious pavers would later settle unevenly due to heavy traffic on part of the lane. Repair of those pavers would be done in late December/early January.
School resumed on August 10th at Beach Elementary with new Principal Jeff Dobbins at the helm. The Beach School Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) is once again working to raise funds to supplement school activities with after school clubs, activities, field trips and events.
Town Council wrestled over budget decisions, eventually settling on a 0.80-mil rate for Town taxes. They agreed to put money in the budget to hire a Director for Bay Oaks, as well as perform several maintenance tasks that had been on hold at Bay Oaks. The council also passed a new Special Event ordinance bringing it into compliance with a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that states that churches cannot be treated differently than other entities in regard to special events.
A traveling science center, WaterVentures Learning Lab visited the Beach School providing museum quality exhibits and hands on learning activities.
Water quality issues related to Lake Okeechobee releases continued to draw the attention of island residents and visitors.
The reFreshFMB waterline and Estero Blvd project Phase 2 prepared to get under way by marking the right of way (ROW) along Estero Blvd, from Lovers Lane south to Madera. Islanders and some property owners were surprised to realize that the county ROW extended further into their yards than they had previously thought, in one case going right through an addition that had been put on an older structure. The ROW at the Red Coconut would extend several feet gulf-ward of the existing hedge according to the ROW stakes. South of Voorhis Street, the ROW was cleared and paved to allow for two lanes of traffic during the project.
The Local Planning Agency (LPA) rejected a proposed surplus parking ordinance that would regulate businesses and others using their parking lots to sell beach parking.
Members of the Fort Myers Beach Citizen Emergency Response Team (CERT) were deployed to northern Florida to assist victims of Hurricane Hermine, in the first official deployment of our CERT.
Budget hearings were held in September for all taxing districts with most districts holding the tax rate at or below the previous year’s tax rate. That still gives most of those districts more money than they had last year as the total taxable value in all taxing districts rose.
Patriot Day was marked by the Fire District with a ceremony at the Station 33 memorial on September 10th before district members participated in Lee County’s memorial service in downtown Fort Myers.
When two businesses expressed interest in using the Town’s ROW adjacent to their properties, Town Council learned that they could lease that ROW if they first designate the areas as “subscription parking.” In October council deliberated over two requests. The Red Coconut asked to lease up to 31 vehicle parking spaces in the Donora ROW. The Beached Whale asked to use a strip of land between their property and Palermo Circle for landscaping and a buffer area. Council approved the Red Coconut request before denying the Beached Whale request.
The Island Hopper Songwriters Fest returned to the beach for the third year for a bigger and better festival. A DEP permit request by two property owners adjacent to the Little Estero Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) to put in a boardwalk over the CWA to the beach was opposed by Town Council. A hearing is set in June 2017.
The Friends of the Mound House received a 2016 Arts & Attractions Grant from the Lee County Tourist Development Council worth over $11,000. The funds will be used to promote the Mound House and fundraisers for the property.
Hurricane Matthew skirted the east coast of Florida, driving many storm refugees to our shores, just in time to find a downtown area filled with pirates! Pirate Fest had a record turnout, with a number of extra pirates who headed our way after the Tybee Island Pirate Festival was cancelled due to the storm.
Fireworks fans were surprised to learn that funding for fireworks support services for New Year’s Eve or 4th of July were not a part of the Town’s 2016-2017 budget. The business community’s Fireworks Fundraising Committee continued to raise funds to cover the cost of the actual fireworks show and eventually the Town did find funding for support services in the budget under a variety of line items.
The Estero Island Garden Club worked year round to beautify the entrance signs for Fort Myers Beach as well as the Bay Oaks garden and Time Square containers. In December they decorate a tree in the Beach Library’s 3rd floor for all to enjoy. This year they created beach-themed ornaments for that tree.
A group of Islanders concerned about low-flying aircraft over the island, met with the Regional Administrator FAA Southern Region in early October and learned that the implementation of new routes that would send the majority of aircraft over the back bay rather than mid-island has been delayed until June 2017.
At a special work session in early November, Tom Torgerson and TPI unveiled the latest downtown redevelopment concept to Town Council, but when they tried to submit an application, were turned down for lack of county authorization.
The Florida Department of Transportation provided council with a presentation on roundabouts traffic signals congested areas and pedestrian overpasses to ease island traffic of 30,000 in-season vehicles. The results of an 18-month study were aimed at minimizing traffic issues, not an outright fix. Some options listed included widening the skybridge to include two southbound lanes, changing signal placement, adding roundabouts at pertinent intersections, adding bicycle lanes plus a sidewalk on the north side of Hurricane Pass Bridge.
In local elections, newcomer Ron Fleming and incumbent Larry Woods were elected to the Fort Myers Beach Board of Fire Commissioners. Rick Sebastian was elected to serve on the Beach Library Board after Lorrie Wolf opted to not run again for the seat she has held for 15 years.
Paint the Beach brought 60 artists to paint the island in early November in a two division event. A Sundowner event mid week drew a number of the artists who all painted the sunset simultaneously.
The 30th Annual American Sand Sculpting Championships were held in November, brining 16 world class master sand sculptors to compete in Solo and Doubles Divisions.
The Beach Kids Foundation held their Spirit Dinner and Auction, Pancake Breakfast and Gift Wrapping party to provide Christmas gifts to area children.
The 28th Annual Christmas Boat Parade lit up the back bay with holiday cheer in early December. Both boats and dock parties made the evening festive. The Estero Island Historic Society celebrated their 25th Holiday Open House, welcoming residents and visitors to the Historic Cottage to view a new display of Island history.
The Fort Myers Beach Art Association turned 65 this year and celebrated with a ribbon cutting and a look back at their progress. The Mound House, in its second year, hosted a planning session to look at long range plans for the island museum.
After Vice Mayor Summer Stockton resigned from Town Council, Joanne Shamp was selected by council to fill the remaining 3-month term. Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert, after a little over a year, resigned as Town Attorney, effective in early January. Council agreed to fund support services for New Year’s Eve fireworks celebration. The Fireworks Fundraising Committee will pay for the cost of the actual fireworks show.
The controversial stormwater ordinance drew a full house to council chambers in late December as council voted down an amendment to the ordinance. Meanwhile a new Parks and Recreation Director was named: Sean DePalma.
Taxpayers who are not residents banded together to form the Estero Island Taxpayers Association in late 2016, in an effort to have their voice heard on local issues.
After a 4-year stint at the head of the Beach Chamber of Commerce, President Bud Nocera retired, with Jacki Liszak taking the reins.
The reFreshFMB waterline and Estero Blvd projects fell behind schedule when utility crews were called away during Hurricane Hermine ad Matthew. Efforts to speed the project along are underway. Detailed information for residents and visitors is available at reFreshFMBeach.com
Rest in Peace
“May the winds of Heaven blow softly and whisper in your ear
how much we love and miss you and wish that you were here.”
Some of the Islanders we bid a final good-by to in 2016 include:
Rev. Don Nicholson
Anthony D. Angelini
Richard Hornack, Sr.
John D. Clayton
Arnold J. VanderSpoel
Edgar W. Fergus
Dolores A. Yost
David C. Welch
James D. Van Fossen
Sherry L. Brown
Linda J. Michielini
Jon C. Dinkel