Council Pushes Stormwater Utility Fee Hearing to February 1st

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    The Town Council of Fort Myers Beach tackled a lengthy list of controversial issues on Monday at their only workshop and meeting being held this month – ranging from the Time Square Informational Booth to a six-month review of the Town’s noise ordinance.

    First up was public comment, where a number of residents protested the proposed $25/month increase to their water bills that will fund the new stormwater utility.

    Linda Meador, south island resident, said she lives on Social Security and that the $25/monthly fee is too much for people like her who live on fixed incomes.

    “In Cape, they pay $6/month – how did you arrive at this amount?” she said. “I recently repaved my driveway with pavers instead of concrete so most of the rain goes into the ground. I should receive a credit for that.”

    She was joined by other residents, who pointed out that monthly payments for stormwater are $8.44/month in Fort Myers, and $12.44/month in Naples.

    Tom Babcock said he’d like to see a breakdown of exactly how stormwater fees will be calculated, including vacant properties and those with pervious surfaces.

    Addressing the Time Square booth issue, Rebel Watersports owner Dean Kerkesner said ‘Let’s stop the madness.’

    “Let’s give the information booth to the Beach Chamber,” he said. “For 16 years, I’ve been watching it used as a booking agency which is against Town code. It should be an information booth for the Chamber and its members.”

    Former Mayor Ray Murphy spoke in favor of the proposed downtown Grand Resorts development.

    “Some 22 years ago now, the county gave permission for a hospitality unit to build on a vacant lot at 2000 Estero Boulevard,” he said. “Then all hell broke loose, and an incorporation committee was formed with the result being the birth of our Town. I would submit that – in the last 22 years – the earth has not fallen apart and Sunstream has proven to be a great corporate partner. Other new developments have come since – the Edison Hotel, the closing of Time Square, the redevelopment of Pink Shell, Publix – all opposed at the time and have now become assets to our island. This new development is within our control. I implore you to go into these future discussions with an open mind.”

    Jay Light pointed out that the Town’s Land Development Code should not be used as a starting point from which to negotiate up for the development.

    Tracey Gore said the proposed redevelopment needs a ‘Benadryl’ to ‘bring down the swelling’.

    Fran Cooke suggested that the decision regarding the new development should go to the voters.

    “Remember why we incorporated,” she said.

    Time Square Presentation

    Public Works Director Scott Baker and Danny Nelson of Tetra Tech then gave a presentation on upgrades they’d like to make to the pavers, landscaping and lights in Time Square when the Town replaces the aging waterline there – something likely to occur next August or September.

    Nelson showed a number of slides depicting concrete stamped to look like tile, which could be colored to match the theme at the new Town Hall. He also discussed the various lighting and landscaping options available.

    “Budget estimates for this are about $750,000, which I believe would be a perfect candidate for Tourist Development Council (TDC) funding because this is your primary access point to the beach and the pier.”

    Baker pointed out that the Town has unused TDC funding to the tune of $1.4 million, that he’d like to ask them to reallocate for this project.

    Council agreed 4-1 (Cereceda dissenting) that the project is interesting, but asked Baker and Nelson to return with more information and to approach the TDC.

    Time Square Information Booth

    Debbie Duncan and Jessica Dean of Tours and Information Center, Inc., spoke first, with Duncan explaining that she purchased the booth from the former owners in October.

    “What we do is tours – half of our businesses pay us for the tours we book for them, some do not,” Debbie said. “When people come to the booth, we give them all options. If they don’t speak English, we make the call for them. For things like the Mound House, if we don’t have the brochures we tell people how to get them. We also do not sell any tickets to any events. We even helped tell people about Sand Sculpting as the Chamber offices were closed during that time.”

    Jessica also offered to change the appearance of the booth and allow the Town space for information they’d like.

    Vice-Mayor Dan Andre asked Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert if what they’re currently doing complies with Town code, and she replied ‘some of it is, and some of it isn’t’.

    Presenting for the Chamber, President Bud Nocera said that the Chamber has been providing information on the island since the 1960’s.

    “I think we are the right type of organization, we want to be partners with the Town, not make money,” she said. “Once expenses are met – about $50,000/year – any revenues we make will be split with the Town. We will promote all 501c-3 organizations and create a marketing synergy with a website that has a quarter of a million visitors and a Facebook page that has 11,000 fans.”

    Cereceda said she likes the idea that any money given to the Town by the Chamber would go into a fund for the public.

    “Would you be willing to use another structure besides the Roxie, or perhaps recess it a bit into the wavy wall,” she asked, and Nocera replied that he would.

    Council agreed to make a final decision at their first meeting in January.

    Noise Ordinance Review

    Next on the agenda was a six-month review of the Town’s noise ordinance, which Council agreed to look at again following the coming season.

    “There’ve only been a handful of complaints relating to the ordinance since it was passed,” said Principal Planner Matt Noble. “I believe it is working.”

    Councilwoman Summer Stockton said she is concerned that there is no one to call except the Lee County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) on the weekends, and that she’d like the ordinance to have more ‘teeth’. Councilwoman Rexann Hosafros asked officers to carry noise meters when they respond to calls.

    Stormwater Fee

    Council opened the discussion on the stormwater fee with Cereceda explaining that it is a very complicated issue.

    “Stormwater has been on your books since 2006/2007 – that was for north Estero Boulevard after the hurricanes came through and included both FEMA funding and Town money,” said Administrative Services Director Maureen Rischitelli. “Since then, staff has been working to establish a utility that will fund both the construction and maintenance. Now we are at negative $1.6 million, which the first dollars will go to reducing. After that, we will begin implementing maintenance for what’s in the ground – then address construction for the rest of it and go for the state revolving fund – same as we did for the waterline replacement.”

    Baker said that staff is trying to get information to the public, and that FEMA will help but they won’t pay for all of it. Staff will also pursue state funding, and the county will be required to pay a portion since they will be connecting to the Town’s system once road improvements are complete.

    “Vacant parcels will pay by what their appraised area is – there are no exemptions,” Baker said. “Communities like Cape and Bonita have the luxury of when a developer comes in they put this infrastructure in – we don’t have any of that. Cape’s budget is for maintenance, not construction.”

    “What happens to a parcel who has already done their stormwater improvements?” Cereceda asked, and Baker said there is an application for a property to have a survey done to see if credits are due – such as those with their own stormwater systems and rain gardens. To initiate that process, someone simply needs to make a phone call or email to Town Hall.

    “Anything crushed – including gravel, not just man-made surfaces, is included as impervious but that can be looked at,” said Nelson. “But even if you maintain 100% on-site, it’s doubtful you’ll receive a 100% credit because everyone needs to contribute.”

    Baker said many lots on the island have rocks instead of grass, which would be considered pervious unless there is plastic underneath.

    Council then asked how the 4,415 ‘average unit’ was calculated, and Nelson replied that it was measured based on an average house of 2,247 square feet with 2,167 square feet of driveway, lot and pool cage area.

    “If you’re smaller than that, you fall into a smaller tier, or if you’re bigger, you go into a larger tier,” Nelson said.

    Andre pointed out that – in communities like ours – you have a very small amount of residents paying for a very large project.

    “That’s why the Florida League of Cities has been pressing our state lawmakers to allow small towns to pass a 1% sales tax increase – that money would be used specifically for projects like these,” he said.

    Councilwoman Rexann Hosafros said projects like this one are why it’s so important that the amendment to the Charter allowing the Town to borrow for longer than three years pass, as the Town could then lock in a long-term low interest rate.

    Cereceda said that the Town has to deal with stormwater one way or another.

    “What I don’t feel like we’ve discussed is – do we want a system that is the best we can have, or one that simply works,” she said.

    Jim Steele told Council a report done in 2013 estimated the costs for stormwater improvements to be $17 million – as opposed to Tetra Tech’s $38 million project ($8 million of which is already done).

    “Assuming that $26.50/month fee is adopted, it will not fund this project,” he said. “The debt service exceeds what that amount will bring in per year, even without including maintenance.”

    Nelson said the earlier report included only stormwater, and this project includes road improvements to the side streets too (note, the county’s Estero Boulevard improvement project is only for Estero, as the Town owns all the side streets).

    “The most cost effective way is to do water, stormwater and road improvements at the same time,” he said.

    Cereceda said she doesn’t believe Council has all the information it needs to make a decision.

    “I think that we need to cover the debt we already have, and make a plan to move forward,” she said. “It sets us back $149,000 a month every time we fail to do something.”

    Council agreed to re-advertise the hearing for the stormwater fee for their February 1st meeting after Rischitelli reported that the ads in the Sand Paper and the Observer did not meet the 30-day notice required by law. Staff agreed to bring a facilities plan for the entire project to the next workshop on January 4th.

    Update on the Downtown Redevelopment Project

    Mayor Cereceda explained she never made a single commitment on the part of the Town to developer Tom Torgerson or anyone else.

    “What I tried to do was to get as much information out as quickly as possible so an intelligent conversation could be had,” she said. “I have not made up my mind in either way whatsoever. Who’s going to lead this project from the Town’s point of view? I believe we need an independent person to help us through this process as we’ve never dealt with anything this comprehensive before and we have no opportunity for failure here.”

    Stockton asked how the Town would pay for a consultant.

    “There are people struggling to pay their bills, and you’re asking them to pay for more and more things,” she said. “It’s not fair.”

    Town Manager Don Stilwell said the budget could be reprioritized.

    Councilman Alan Mandel said he thinks there should be 1-3 years of fact-gathering first.

    “I think we should direct staff to work with the county in that fact-gathering process so we can be partners with them in real-time,” he said.

    Hosafros again reminded everyone ’to take a breath’.

    “This is the acorn, not the tree,” she said. “I expect there to be many changes to this as we go along.”

    The mayor also urged the public to come to the meeting next Monday, December 14th to tell the developers what they want.

    “They will replay the visual presentation, followed by break out sessions with individuals and plans so people can talk one-on-one about their concerns,” Cereceda said.

    Lehnert suggested that Council adopt a resolution at their first meeting in January allowing the developer to seek permits from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and FEMA for the seawall with the understanding that the Town won’t be liable and that the Town retains all rights to say yes, no or maybe to any part of the project as it goes forward.

    “If they don’t get those approvals, it will affect the entire project,” she said, and Council agreed to allow her to prepare the resolution.

    Town Council Meeting

    At a much shorter meeting held later that afternoon, Council agreed to set a joint meeting with the Marine Resources Task Force for January 4th and to allow seasonal parking lot owners one more season to improve their property to meet the additional requirements of permanent lots.

    First up was a presentation from Nancy Sheridan and Brett Winter of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) on the subject of sharks and shark fishing.

    “Sharks play a vital role in marine ecosystems, and they are a keystone species – meaning if they are missing, the ecosystem would be out of whack,” said Sheridan. “Shark fishing is allowed from the shore with a fishing license. We’re aware of the public perception that fishing could increase shark attacks near the shore but we’ve found no evidence of this as shark attacks are so rare.”

    Sheridan said the FWC plans to use a non-regulatory approach called ‘Shark Smart Fishing’ where they will advise fishermen not to fish near swimmers or surfers and to minimize shark mortality by using proper tackle.

    Winter said that there have only been 8 bites recorded in Lee and Charlotte Counties combined over the last 95 years – none of them fatal.

    “Worldwide, there are an average of about 60 bites per year, with only 10% of those being fatalities,” he said. “It’s actually much more dangerous to go to the dog park – there have been 263 fatalities in 10 years from dogs, versus 10 from sharks.”

    Council then formally presented Dan and Tree Andre with a plaque and mangrove leaves that will be placed on the mangrove sculpture honoring winners of the Town’s Mulholland Award.

    During Councilmembers’ Items, Hosafros asked Lehnert to address the issue with Florida Power and Light to see if the Town has any chance to file for relief from their demand that the Town pay back what it was overpaid due to FP&L’s mistake, and Stockton asked if Council could take some kind of stance on the proposed Bay Harbour development on San Carlos Island.

    Lehnert recommended that staff look at the proposal and then voice their concerns at the zoning hearing.

    “However, since that hearing is scheduled for December 17th, Council will need to appoint someone from staff to speak for them so they will be allowed to make comments when the project goes before the Board of Lee County Commissioners sometime in January,” she said.

    “I think there are some issues the county may have with this – they are asking for bonus density, and to my knowledge the county cannot do that on barrier islands,” Principal Planner Matt Noble said. “It’s too dense, too tall, and the traffic will affect us.”

    Council agreed to ask him to speak on those issues at the zoning hearing.

    The next Town Council meeting will be held on January 4th, 2016, at 2pm. The next workshop will be held on the same day at 10am.

    Keri Hendry Weeg