The most controversial topic before Town Council at its regularly-scheduled virtual meeting on Monday, April 20, was not even on the agenda – when the Town may reopen the beach and allow hotels and renters to once again accept visitor reservations. Following their discussions, a clearly divided Council voted 4 to 1 to host a Special Meeting to discuss the matters in-depth on Monday, April 27, at 9 a.m.
Early in the meeting, Council member Jim Atterholt stated that he would like to discuss “the appropriate way to address the beach reopening and rental issues. What is our strategy going forward on these two sensitive issues that are not on today’s agenda?” Mayor Ray Murphy responded, “I had the feeling this would come up today, as it is not on the agenda. Feel free to comment on these during ‘Council Member Items’ and we can decide to address them at the next Management & Planning Session or the next Council Meeting would be my recommendation.” During Public Comment, Council heard from seven citizens in favor of reopening the beach to some extent, with two against, and two others wanting to but only in sync with other Southwest Florida communities. Four more residents wanted Council to allow new rentals at the earliest possible time.
Reopen the Beach & Rentals
Under “Council Member Items,” Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros stated, “I, like everyone else, received a multitude of emails regarding a limited reopening of the beach. Sanibel has not closed their beach and they are not overrun. We should keep our parking closed. Initially closing the beach was correct, to get all the vacationers to clear Town, but that was accomplished, so we should reopen the beach for a limited time from 7 to 9 a.m. so people can walk it for exercise and to see how that would work. This would only be for Town residents with proof of residency, with all Social Distancing rules to apply, so no sunbathing or reclining or beach paraphernalia.”
“The Vice Mayor just gave my speech,” said Atterholt. “The south end of the island has narrow sidewalks and in the mornings, there are so many people walking them that it is a challenge, so reopening the beach for exercise for a limited time for our property owners, with no public parking, is a proposal I can support. Right now, we are prohibiting rentals until late June but that is out of sync with our surrounding municipalities like Marco Island and Sanibel, so I would like to see us get in sync with our neighboring communities today.”
Council member Bill Veach noted, “We are right near our peak with the coronavirus, so as much as I want our hotels and businesses to open, this is a very dangerous time. Not many people on the island are infected, so we should maintain what we are doing for a little while longer. I spoke to hotel general managers about the safe way to reopen, such as how to allow guests in common areas and only cleaning rooms when they are vacant. This is not only about health but optics, as Florida got beat up at the front end by allowing college kids to party here, so now I would like to send a better message that we are being cautious and careful, until we have a better plan to keep our residents and guests healthy.”
“Not everyone can walk the beach from 7 to 9 a.m.,” said Council member Dan Allers, “so I don’t want to leave out other people. I would like to reopen the beach to our residents but not on that timeframe, to make it accessible to more people. As for hotels and rentals, we need to get them a date where they can start taking reservations to see what kind of influx we will have from travelers, as those figures will allow our bars and businesses to plan for what kinds of purchases they will need to take care of those people, and the sooner we make that decision, the better off we will be.”
Murphy stated, “I want to reopen the beach myself but my position and belief is that we have come too far at this point in controlling the coronavirus on the beach to blow it now in the next few weeks. We can say the beach is open on a limited basis for two hours in the morning but to everyone else in Lee County, in their minds, the beach will be open. We should see what Lee County Commissioners do at their meeting Tuesday morning. If they open their Fort Myers Beach Parks as soon as possible, not on a limited basis, how do we handle that – with barricades and armed guards? Sanibel is a totally different situation from us, as they are a very regulated beach with designated parking areas and their own police department and a $6 toll bridge. I am not in a hurry, as we have come so far to prevent the danger here and have done a great job, so I would like to see us stay the course for a few more weeks. I take my direction from healthcare providers who say we are not over this yet, so that is my two cents worth!”
Hosafros stated, “My preference is to discuss this today,” but then said she would be open to a Special Council Meeting to decide these issues. Veach would be “more comfortable in waiting for our next regular meeting in two weeks, to see where everything is going,” with Murphy adding, “I agree.” Atterholt supported Hosafros’ Special Meeting request, but after Lee County Commissioners meet, and suggested Monday, April 27, at 9 a.m. Allers, however, asked, “What is the difference in making the decisions in a week or we talk about them today? I don’t want anyone to get sick but there are a lot of people out there for who one week may be the difference in closing their business and never reopening again. The sooner we get them some direction, the better.” Hosafros again suggested a Special Meeting, “with the agenda being to amend the Town’s previous Emergency Motions, Proclamations and Orders.” Council approved the April 27 Special Meeting 4 to 1, with Veach against.
Estero Boulevard Lighting & Bayside Park Design
Under “Estero Boulevard Streetlighting Update,” Council received its first report since three new members joined, on the issue from Kristi Spohn of Sesco Lighting. Spohn suggested two solutions: working through the current Florida Power & Light utility lease agreement to find the most efficient solution that offers low upfront costs but with no lease termination or Town ownership, or the Town can purchase a new system through the private sector to ensure it has the correct lighting design. Upfront costs are higher but the Town would have complete ownership. Council instructed Town Manager Roger Hernstadt to request proposals from outside companies to provide them with information to lead to a final decision.
Under “Bayside Park Design,” Council allocated by a 4 to 1 vote, $197,700 to DRMP, Inc., for the Bayside Park design concept, with Atterholt against. Atterholt suggested that since Council is considering several high price projects such as new Estero Boulevard streetlights, Times Square renovations, and a potential Bay Oaks Recreational Center revision, along with the unknown financial ramifications due to the coronavirus, Council make no substantial allocations until it can review in-depth cost analysis on each project and prioritize them. Hosafros voted in support because Council agreed to a 30% Design review, with the three people who addressed it in Public Comment against it.
In other matters, Council unanimously approved a “Donate Life Month” Proclamation; a request by Publix Supermarket at 4791 Estero Boulevard to continue its Second Reading for a new liquor store expansion to August 4 due to the coronavirus situation; accepted a “Bay Road Permanent Easement” from the Beach United Methodist Church to construct a new sidewalk from Estero Boulevard to the Beach Elementary School as well as new Town metered parking spaces in exchange for allowing the church to use these spots for free during their services; and appointed Veach to represent the Town on the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program Policy Committee
During “Town Attorney Items,” John Herin, Jr., received unanimous approval to begin the removal process for two derelict vessels from the Town Mooring Field and informed Council he will soon provide them an update on the nine current litigation cases involving the Town.
In addition to the Special Meeting on Monday, April 27, the next Town Council Meeting will be Monday, May 4 and the next Management & Planning Session is Thursday, May 7, all currently planned to be virtual sessions at 9 a.m. The public can watch the meetings on Comcast Channel 98, on the Town YouTube broadcast, or via audio only through the Town website. Council adjourned at 12:48 p.m.