An island community faces a rundown high-profile entry point, ravaged by Hurricane Charley, that faces an uncertain future clouded by government panels, real estate developers and upset citizens. Fort Myers Beach? Not this time! Cross the Matanzas Pass Bridge to San Carlos Island and encounter the almost exact same scenario.
Jack Mayher and Nick Ruland are partners in the Bay Harbour Marina Village project at 1195 Main Street on San Carlos Island. They propose constructing 130-foot-high residential buildings with 113 units, 37 for “workforce” or “moderate income” housing, with a 286-space boat barn, 520-car parking garage, and 15 townhouses. The Oak & Main Streets site was home for years to Compass Rose Marina, until Hurricane Charley destroyed that in 2004.
In late 2016, a Lee County hearing examiner issued a scathing 53-page report against Bay Harbour Marina Village, stating that it was too dense and out-of-character with the island’s working waterfront heritage. Hearing examiners are local administrative agency employees who serve as judges to resolve conflicts in their jurisdiction. The hearing examiner’s ruling is not final, but it is a neutral place for development plans before reaching the Lee Board of County Commissioners for a vote. Their proposal was also a catalyst in the formation of the Beach Area Civic Association (BACA), to protest the plan.
“Throughout this entire process, we heard from many people who are against our project,” said Jack. “In addition to BACA, there are two sets of neighbors and competing developers who oppose us, including the Ebb Tide Development that already has permission from 2013 to build at the south end of San Carlos Island, with a much greater density than ours.” Ebb Tide calls for 271 condominium units, 450 hotel rooms, with five 230-foot towers on over 36 acres, with retail and an 850-boat wet slip, among other amenities. “The bizarre part,” explained Jack, “is many of the same people who work against us testified for Ebb Tide, even though it will dwarf us, with 36 versus less than our 8 acres, and a 3 to 1 density ratio, yet they thought Ebb Tide fantastic, and I think it is, too!”
Bay Harbour opponents say that it will be catastrophic to San Carlos Island’s historic working waterfront, but Jack countered that is already a part of the community’s past: “San Carlos is hugely populated, with a sea of rooftops, and most developments exceeding 20 units per acre, while Bay Harbour would have less than 10, if you do not count our 37 workforce units, and that only increases to 15 per acre if you do.”
Jack and Nick feel differently about BACA. “They comment that they do not want their property taxes to go up and I can appreciate that,” says Jack. “Most of those people live here and recreate here and feel safe here, and feel good about living here,” added Nick. “Many of them live here for decades, and even own homes and property for generations, so we absolutely respect their opinions, and we want to protect these people, with improved roads and drainage. After all, they are our neighbors and you watch out for your neighbors.”
“And this neighborhood needs improving,” stressed Jack! “Take a ride down San Carlos Boulevard on San Carlos Island and what do you see – a strip club and bar, Goodwill and the gas station, a tattoo parlor and rundown trailer park, and just one or two others, in block after block of abandoned and run-down buildings. We have to clean up the front of our property daily, as we find some not-good stuff; what kind of economic base does that bring us, and it is a bad first impression that everyone sees when they travel to Fort Myers Beach. In a lot of ways, we are willing to be the catalyst to get this community going again, to flip the switch back on, as owners and operators, to develop it. I attended a number of BACA meetings and I know they are not our friends, but we never ignore them and would never patronize them or anybody who lives on this island.”
“We addressed everything that the hearing examiner questioned in her report,” added Nick, “and resubmitted those in our new proposal, under the Destination Resort category, rather than the initial one for Central Urban, partly because BACA did not want Central Urban hanging over the island for future developments. We did listen to BACA, incorporated plenty of their ideas and suggestions into the new plan like lowering the height of the building by 30 feet, and did so with a year’s delay to the project as well as a significant additional expense because of our respect for them, in trying to be a good neighbor. Another example is the 15 townhouses along the canal, to make for a nice transition and buffer.”
“BACA felt we did not have enough greenspace,” added Jack, “because we had it all up on the rooftops. Now we added significant greenspace on the ground, while not eliminating the rooftop spots, basically doubling the greenspace.” And the workforce housing units are essential to the future success of this area, Nick explained. ”While these do come at a more affordable price, they are certainly not low-income housing or slum units; they are very nice! This is the growing trend in the marketplace, with nice amenities, and we went to great lengths to get these right, as we expect the reaction to them to be phenomenal.”
“We want to work as best as we can with the neighbors,” offered Jack, “because they are all cordial people, so we wanted to sit down with the BACA folks to come up with the best possible plan. Charlie Whitehead is a sharp guy, and I admire Nick White’s passion. Of course, you will never get everyone to agree on everything, but we feel that down the road, Bay Harbour will eventual benefit almost everyone, whether it be you today or your heirs somewhere down the line. We worked diligently to listen to them.”
There is an obvious problem with Bay Harbour seeking the Destination Resort designation; it requires a minimum of 8 acres and Bay Harbour is just 7.47: “We are looking for a deviation,” explained Jack. “If we don’t receive that, we have a Plan B already in place, and all you have to do is look at our adjacent neighbors to figure out with who that may be.”
Jack admits, however, that they did not reduce the density in the new plan, “because we are still on the low side compared to most San Carlos Island developments.” As for when Lee County will hold public meetings for the most recent concept to address Comp Plan and zoning issues, “we don’t know that date yet,” said Jack. Should they eventually receive permission to proceed, “we can be under construction in 12 months, with shovel in the ground to a grand opening in 18 months after that.”
Jack said that he finds it mystifying as to why the leaders of Fort Myers Beach are against their proposal as well. “We will have over 500 parking spaces, with at least 200 dedicated to the needs of people who work on or will visit Fort Myers Beach. Those folks will increase their business, while we help with their parking dilemma, and that is good and smart planning.”
While Jack would not predict the final Bay Harbour outcome, he does offer one prognostication: “One thing is 100% certain to happen here, just the same as in every other community…it is inevitable that San Carlos Island will change. I always hear people at various public meetings around here say, ‘We don’t want Fort Myers Beach or San Carlos Island to become South Beach,’ but you also do not want them to become Daytona Beach either! The best plan is controlled development, where you have something smart, to maintain and increase property values. There is a value to redevelopment, so that your community remains in good shape, and we are willing to be the pioneers.
“The Lee Board of County Commissioners approved Ebb Tide, and they did that with the right direction for San Carlos Island in mind, and they see the vision, and our project is the right thing for San Carlos Island as well, as a continuation of that right direction, so we need to get back to reality. We talk about facts, and facts at the end of the day will win the prize. We love this island, and we took our time and incurred a big expense to get this right. We do not intend to construct the Bay Harbour Marina Village, then sell it and run with the money. We are builders, developers, holders and neighbors, who will be here with you every step of the way, working to ensure the best for our community.”