Third Time’s the Charm
The Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC) by matching 4 to 1 votes approved a Small Scale Comprehensive Plan Amendment and Zoning change from Industrial to Central Urban for the third version of the proposed Bay Harbour Marina Village development at 2120 Main Street on San Carlos Island before roughly 30 people on Wednesday, June 17. Commissioner Frank Mann provided the dissenting vote on each.
The approvals mirrored the recommendation of an independent Special Magistrate mediator from a May 11 hearing between the Bay Harbour developer, Southern Comfort Storage, LLC, along with Lee County Staff and the Lee County Attorney’s Office. The mediator is the final step to determine a compromise before the developer can pursue litigation. Once the BoCC accepted the Special Magistrate mediation proposal, it concluded the matter.
The Bay Harbour concept that the BoCC accepted is for 75 residential units with the 315 already-approved wet and dry boat slips. It includes a row of 49-foot-high townhouses along the eastern canal, to give the site a graduated look. The approved plan includes 30,000-square-feet of commercial space, increases its open space to 2.61 acres, eliminates public parking, and caps the maximum height at 100 feet.
Southern Comfort Storage actually tried to offer this to the BoCC as an 11th hour compromise at their previous meeting for their second development proposal on October 23, 2019 that the BoCC turned down by a 4 to 1 vote based on the number of units and the structural height, but the BoCC refused to consider it as the public had no opportunity to vet it. This gave the June 17 BoCC Meeting an unusual format; generally the only people who can address the BoCC are those who previously testified about a development proposal before a Lee County Hearing Examiner, but since this plan did not go before one, anyone who wished to address the BoCC could.
Southern Comfort Storage representatives provided a brief synopsis of the current proposal, citing its biggest changes being the reduction of residential units from 113 to 75, elimination of 200 public parking spaces, addition 20,000-square-feet of civic space, and lowering the maximum building height from 175 to 100 feet while retaining the “wedding cake” tiered architectural style to reduce its impact and stay consistent with the San Carlos Island and Lee Plan regulations.
They acknowledged the developers already have permission to rebuild the former Compass Rose Marina that was previously on that property until its destruction by Hurricane Charley in August 2004, but a stand-alone marina is not financially feasible, as evidenced that another previously-approved marina right across the street is not under construction either, and argued that their request is comparable with other redevelopment projects already approved for San Carlos Island. Commissioner Mann noted, however, due to the threat of pending litigation, “I feel like I have a loaded gun pointed at me while trying to make an objective assessment of what they are proposing this morning.” Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass added that, “as a lifelong Lee County resident, I have seen many changes. A traditional way to reduce urban sprawl is to build up, so going down from the original height of 175 to 100 feet is a big concession.”
13 Pro; 12 Con
BoCC Chair Brian Hamman explained that under the Comprehensive Plan Amendment hearing, each person has five minutes for Public Comment. Surprisingly, contrary to all other Bay Harbour proceedings over the past five years, more people spoke in support of it, with 13 in favor and 12 opposed.
Paula Kiker said, “I favor Bay Harbour as a gateway to Fort Myers Beach, to bring new life to that area, and create an economic engine so badly needed on San Carlos Island. This will improve San Carlos Island property values and blend with the working waterfront to thrive for many years to come.” Katherine Young opined, “The area has been in a state of neglect since Hurricane Charley. To avoid the danger of falling into urban blight, this community needs an update. The developers live and work here and are not outsiders who come down and say ‘change it!’ They met with people for years, with changes to their plan, so let’s move ahead.” Howard Wheeler noted encouragingly that Bay Harbour “in direct labor dollars will bring in 25 to 30 million over the course of the project.”
Speaking against Bay Harbour were several long-time opponents. Nicholas White noted, “We like the way San Carlos Island is and work hard to make it stay the good place that it is. If you put this in place, you are saying to San Carlos Island residents that we don’t care about you, and throw the Land Development Code in the garbage! This is precedent-setting and if you approve, developments like this will be all over San Carlos Island, so gentlemen, one more time please refuse this.” Joanne Semmer stated that Bay Harbour “will increase traffic trips daily by 3,253 on a two-way street; would you like to see this – No! But no one cares.”
Beach Area Civic Association (BACA) President Charlie Whitehead began: “Gentlemen, here we are again! We are here to decide the future of the island that we call home. You rejected this as recently as last October and did not consider this 11th hour compromise then because the public did not have a chance to vet it and that still has not happened. The Special Magistrate held a hearing in the middle of a pandemic in a locked building with a poor sound system with evidence that would not stand up in court. This is not a case of planning driving development but development driving planning.” Maurice Gingrich observed, “Almost all the people who are for this project are businesspeople trying to protect their wallets; we are here trying to protect our homes and neighborhoods!”
Following Public Comment, Pendergrass made a motion to approve the Bay Harbour Small Scale Comprehensive Plan Amendment, saying, “At the end of the day, there have been so many concessions over the last five years. I understand there is pain to change but I feel comfortable approving this based on the staff recommendation.” Hamman added, “This area is crying out for renovation as it is the gateway to our biggest tourism destination. This project made a lot of concessions so I support the motion.” Raymond Sandelli, whose District 3 region includes San Carlos Island, said, “Changes are a part of every day. Nobody gets all they want and this is a great compromise on everybody’s part, so in the end it is time to go forward.” Mann had a different opinion. “My main concern about this since day #1 is that Main Street is the worst road in Lee County! This will only exacerbate the traffic for the good people who live down there so I cannot support it.” The BoCC then approved the Amendment 4 to 1, with Mann against.
Central Urban Zoning
The second hearing to change the zoning from Industrial to Central Urban was a mere formality. Nine of the speakers chose to address the BoCC again during Public Comment, this time with eight against. White stated, “The interest of the people of Southwest Florida was not served here this morning. I am not faulting the BoCC but this process was a travesty! Basically there is no way for citizens to win disputes anymore when all developers need is to threaten to file lawsuits and they get what they want.” Joanne Semmer admitted, “Some of our areas do not look good, but that is because Lee County Code Enforcement does not do its job. You are tearing the fiber and fabric out of a small fishing village.” Bill Semmer added, “All it takes to win you guys over is enough money to hire a hired gun! I wish you would follow your own rules and regulations.” Whitehead added, “I could argue against this all over again but you let the horse out of the barn already, so now let’s talk about road improvements; nothing gets done unless you guys make it happen and I would like you to do that.”
In the only Commissioner comment on the rezoning, Pendergrass stated, “I said years ago that Main Street needs to be a four-lane road so we will check with the Florida Department of Transportation for this.” The BoCC then approved the Central Urban Rezoning 4 to 1, with Mann against.
BACA Addresses Community Topics
The Beach Area Civic Association (BACA) convened at Bonita Bill’s meeting room on Tuesday evening, June 9, to discuss several topics of community interest, the key one being the Bay Harbour Marina Village development that would be heard June 17. BACA President Charlie Whitehead reviewed the project’s history, Hearing Examiners’ rejections, project changes and BoCC denials. He also explained that anyone could address the BoCC about the project on June 17.
On a different topic, Whitehead explained that the Town of Fort Myers Beach is examining a significant Bay Oaks Recreational Center renovation, with the Bay Oaks Recreational Center Advisory Board (BORCAB), Friends of Bay Oaks, and Fort Myers Beach Little League reviewing the concept to provide input. Barbara Hill, the BORCAB Vice Chair, called it “a great project! It is not really a renovation but a complete redo, and we are working closely with the Town, Lee County and the Lee County School Board, so it has the best possible uses for adults and kids. We are looking at indoor and outdoor pickleball courts, an amphitheater for outdoor concerts, Little League facilities, meeting areas for groups like this, and space for additional events like the ‘Taste of The Beach,’ as well as the gymnasium and workout rooms.”
Whitehead asked if the Town budgeted money for the project, with Hill replying, “The Town increased its millage last year to begin to set aside funds for Bay Oaks as well as renovations to Bayside Park and Times Square, but it will take more than that, such as other governmental funds and programs to pay off the mortgages on an on-going basis. Many of us have a vested interest to ensure this works, so we hope you support this, as it can be a win-win for everyone!”
Brief updates on other matters of concern to BACA members were provided by Whitehead, including the San Carlos Boulevard study, Margaritaville Resort lawsuit that had its Appeals Court oral arguments earlier that afternoon, upcoming Lee County office elections including for Sheriff and three BoCC seats including District 3 that serves Fort Myers Beach and San Carlos Island; announced a new “Save Bayside Park” group in opposition to the Town’s 30% design plan; and stated that BACA hopes to fill two openings on its seven-member Governing Board.
He concluded the one-hour meeting by saying, “The Island Sand Paper recently announced that after 20 years, it will either be sold or close on July 10. I and others had issues with them over the past two decades, but this would be so bad for the community! Studies show when you lose a local newspaper, taxes go up quicker, there is less oversight, and local government corruption increases. Thanks to Bob and Missy Layfield for their good service to all our residents and Good Luck in their future, but if you know anyone who can step up and save The lsland Sand Paper, encourage them to, as the more eyes out there protecting us, the better off we all are!”