Nix Comp Plan Amendment/Zoning
After five years of public hearings, two Hearing Examiner reports, and dozens of community meetings, the controversial Bar Harbour Marina Village proposed residential and commercial development at 1135 Main Street on San Carlos Island finally received its judgment day before the Lee County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) on Wednesday morning, October 23, with roughly 50 citizens in attendance.
After hearing from Lee County Staff who recommended the proposal, the BoCC heard from Bay Harbour representatives who proposed a last-minute scaled-down alternative, then from 16 residents, before making an abortive attempt to return the matter to the Hearing Examiner for a third time. When Bay Harbour refused that offer, BoCC denied the Comp Plan Amendment, then moments later the concurrent Rezoning.
Bay Harbour developers Jack Mayher and Nick Ruland, under the legal title of Southern Comfort Storage LLC, had requested a Comprehensive Plan Amendment and Rezoning of their 7.47-acre site from Industrial Development, in use since the Lee Plan began in 1984, to Destination Resort Mixed Use Water Dependent Future Land Use that exists in one other area of Lee County, down Main Street on San Carlos Island for the as-yet-unconstructed EbbTide project.
The BoCC remanded Bay Harbour to two different Hearing Examiners, the first back in November 16, 2016. 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 BoCC for a vote. Hearing Examiner Laura Bellflower in 2017 issued a scathing 53-page report against Bay Harbour, then Hearing Examiner Donna Marie Collins in 2019 denied it as well, based on density, intensity, height and neighborhood incompatibility.
Last Minute Alternative
Bay Harbour’s proposed development was for 113 residential units, including 38 for “workforce” or “moderate income” housing; 30,000-square-feet of commercial space; a marina with 29 wet and 286 dry slips; 4,000-square-feet of civic space open to the public; and a 620-space parking garage with 200 spots for public use; at a maximum height of 145 feet.
When attorney Russell Schropp, representing Bay Harbour, spoke, he presented the BoCC with a last-minute alternative to reduce the residential units from 113 to 75, eliminate the 200 public parking spaces, and lower the maximum height from 145 to 100 feet in the hope this would satisfy several of the concerns stated by the Hearing Examiners. He then reminded County Commissioners that their staff and the Lee County Local Planning Agency each recommended Bay Harbour and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and all other reviewing agencies had no objections.
Sixteen members of the general public next addressed the BoCC in three-minute increments during Public Comment, with ten opposed to Bay Harbour and six in favor. In opposition, Joanne Semmer wheeled in a cart full of information “that is not in your packets, including 310 letters for denial. Your Staff Report is full of wrong information. This development will increase traffic by 2,535 car trips a day on a two-lane dead end road in a Coastal High Hazard Area, so how much is one life worth to you guys – I don’t know what else to say!”
Charlie Whitehead, President of the Beach Area Civic Association (BACA) that formed to oppose Bay Harbour but then worked with the developers to find an equitable solution, stated, “Gentlemen, here we are again! The way the neighborhood feels about this proposal has not changed. The height of Bay Harbour will dwarf existing buildings and the traffic is incompatible with the High Hazard Area on a two-lane neighborhood road. I would love to say I support Jack and Nick, but I don’t, as Bay Harbour is inconsistent with the Comp Plan and incompatible with the zoning.”
Catherine Young, on the other hand, pointed out she is a BACA member who supports Bay Harbour, as “the applicant here has gone out of their way to work with the neighbors, to try to get everyone to agree. This property has been a blight since Hurricane Wilma and ignored by Lee County for years, so it is time to move forward and make this a vibrant part of the community again, as I think this is great and beautiful!” Realtor Denise Knudson called Bay Harbour “the highest and best use of the property and it will be beneficial to visitors and residents; it is time to move forward on San Carlos Island.” Jonathan Gentle noted that “the area has not seen any uptick in small business for the local population and is in regular decline into disrepair. It would be great to see this a viable neighborhood instead of a whole bunch of closed shops as you approach the beach.”
Third Time The Charm
The BoCC then began their Board Discussion. Commissioner John Manning noted the proposed design reduction brought forward by Bay Harbour and suggested a course of action to remand it back to the Hearing Examiner a third time, to see if these satisfy the objections. Manning had a concern, however, that the last Hearing Examiner report took eleven months and stipulated this return to the BoCC by January 15, 2020.
Schropp asked for and received a five-minute recess to confer with his clients, then informed County Commissioners the Bay Harbour team did not see any benefit to returning to the Hearing Examiner a third time and asked the BoCC to vote on the Comp Plan Amendment, stating that if they lost, they would not seek their concurrent rezoning approval.
Board Chair Brian Hamman stated, “I have sympathy for both sides but I cannot support these changes on the fly. There will eventually be redevelopment on Main Street as that is a community in transition and hopefully we will receive a new application in the future.” New District 3 Commissioner Raymond Sandelli, whose jurisdiction includes San Carlos Island, said “There is a lot to like about this plan, so it seems to me the applicant is moving in the right direction to make this work, as that area is in transition, and perhaps in the future we can readdress it.” The BoCC then voted to deny the Comp Plan Amendment 4 to 1, with Manning dissenting.
Although Bay Harbour preferred not to proceed with the Rezoning request, the BoCC legally needed to vote on it. After a brief Staff report, Schropp said that “based solely on the basis of the project being in an Industrial Development zone that does not allow residential, the applicant acknowledges the project is inconsistent with that usage and will not make any additional presentation.” Commissioner Frank Mann then made a motion to deny the rezoning.
Thirty-eight people signed up for “Public Comment,” but when Chair Hamman called the roll, all but Whitehead waived their right in support of the motion. “Thank you for doing the right thing,” Whitehead told the County Commissioners. “I like the direction that the changes are heading, as we all know there will eventually be redevelopment, and I hope that one day Jack and Nick will make a big pot of money off that property.” Lee County Commissioners then unanimously denied the rezoning and adjourned the meeting.