Time Shares Remain Hot Topic
The Fort Myers Beach Town Council met in a regularly-scheduled virtual meeting on Monday morning, May 4. While the posted agenda was pedestrian, highlighted by discussing the annual Fourth of July fireworks display, Council spent the most time on a non-agenda item, the reopening of time share rentals. Council seemingly settled this at its latest Special Meeting only three days prior, but since several people speaking during Public Comment were unhappy with that, the panel engaged in a protracted debate that came within one vote of actually implementing stricter regulations.
Fireworks Decision On Hold
During a discussion about Fourth of July Fireworks, Town Manager Roger Hernstadt presented two options: $22,000 to the Aeroshell Team for a flyover during the afternoon or $27,000 to Garden State Fireworks for the traditional show off the Fort Myers Beach Pier that evening. “This is on your agenda today because it is the deadline for the fireworks company,” he explained, saying that the down payment would be half the amount, but if the Town canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, it would most likely lose that money.
Council member Bill Veach noted, “People are under the impression the coronavirus is over and we are reopening everything and life is back to normal, but this is not the time to have a big celebration on the beach, as social distancing will be practically impossible, with a lot of risk for the contagion to spread. We will pack people like Spring Break!” Mayor Ray Murphy added, “I certainly agree; I picture Times Square packed with people chest-to-chest, so I don’t see how it can happen. If there is an alternative, like this flyover where people can look up and see them overhead, I am open to that, but we must take baby steps.”
Council member Jim Atterholt responded, “I appreciate your perspectives, because for the first couple of days the beach reopened, there was a surge of people but things steadied down since. I am extremely impressed with how people are responding to social distancing. People will be all along the beach and not just in Times Square, so I am more optimistic but share your concerns.” Council member Dan Allers asked, “Is this really the deadline to have or not have it, as two more months is a long way away and things can go up and down. Can we go ahead with the fireworks contract and maybe not have people in Times Square?” “Closing Time Square occurred to me too,” added Murphy, “but you still have Lynn Hall Park, so I don’t know how you do that.”
Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros said “I look at what category this falls into and it seems to be an event, like a concert or football game, and those will not happen anytime soon. I do not want to allocate the resources, so I will not vote for fireworks but am open to discussing the flyover.” Allers suggested “reaching out to the fireworks company and see if they can extend that confirmation date. Let’s table this at least until Thursday’s Management & Planning Session so staff can talk to Garden State.” Council then unanimously tabled the fireworks decision.
Long Way Around
With reopening time shares not on the agenda, Veach asked at the beginning of Council Member Items, “Is this the time to delve into the time share issue, as all of us received many emails pertaining to it.” Murphy suggested bringing it to Thursday’s Management & Planning Session, “with the hope of resolving it.” Allers and Hosafros wanted to immediately discuss it, with Atterholt noting, “Today, if we are voting on it, is what makes sense.” Murphy concluded, “OK – let’s discuss it.”
Veach explained, “Time shares are not like condos or hotels, as they are transient by nature and a health risk, as every week, a whole new group of people from all over the county changes out. They do not have large staffs to clean elevators and railings throughout the day, so those are challenges. They have common areas and pool decks. A hotel can clean a room when people check out and leave it empty for the next three days, to let the virus expire, and can enforce social distancing, but you cannot do that with time shares, because as soon as one tenant leaves, another checks in.”
Allers, who was Monday’s deciding vote, indicated he could change his mind. Murphy noted, however, “While I sympathize with the time share owners and do not want to take away anyone’s property rights, they are not the same as hotels at all. Hotels can monitor the turnover but time shares have small staffs and are a totally different animal.”
Rather than easing or lifting time share restrictions, Veach made a motion to strengthen them. “Owners cannot rent out their units, not even to blood relatives. Managers must provide Personal Protection Equipment for their workers and institute a cleaning program for which they can charge an additional fee. Common areas, like community and card rooms, must close. The swimming pool and deck must practice and monitor social distancing and if they cannot, the pool must close, with an effective occupancy date of May 15.”
Town Attorney John Herin, Jr., only then noted, “In your last order, you already approved that times shares can reopen on May 15, with just social distancing restrictions, like hotels and short-term rentals.” He reminded Council as well that May 15 is not a firm date, noting, “It is the presumption that Governor Ron DeSantis will lift his short-term rental restrictions by then, through Phase Two of his reopening plan, but that is not definite.”
Hosafros concluded, “so there is no need for a motion at this time, as they can get in on May 15.” Veach noted, however, “with no restrictions right now.” He did not withdraw his motion and Murphy seconded it. “Not everyone is responsible,” said Veach. “If they were, we would not need any of these measures imposed by the Governor, as a lot of people, in their minds, still think this is the flu and they can do anything they want, so we need some kind of structure, as throwing open the floodgates on May 15 will cause some risk.” The motion failed by a 3 to 2 vote, with Hosafros, Allers, and Atterholt against. Atterholt wryly observed to Murphy, “We probably should have listened to you and discussed this on Thursday!” Murphy replied, “We took the long way around on this one!”
Outdoor Restaurant Expansion
In other matters, Council unanimously passed the sole item on its Consent Agenda: the “Fifth Amendment Interlocal Agreement Between Lee County and Fort Myers Beach for a Utility Relocation Project to Provide for Town Reimbursement Expenditures.” Under its Administrative Agenda, Council unanimously approved the Town’s Fiscal Year 2019 Audit Report from the firm of Mauldin & Jenkins, which concluded that the Town is in excellent financial shape but cautioned Council against any unnecessary expenditures due to revenue uncertainty due to COVID-19.
Council unanimously passed a $21,331 allocation to Angie Brewer & Associates to perform compliance activities on the Town’s State Revolving Fund (SRF) loan for its water system; a separate $21,331 to Angie Brewer for its SRF loan for its Stormwater system; and selected three 2020 “Mayor John Mullholland Stewardship Award” recipients: former Mayor Anita Cereceda; Dawn & Joe Fleming of the Fairview Isles Neighborhood Association; and former Marine Resources Task Force member Shannon Mapes. Council agreed with the Selection Advisory Committee’s recommendation to interview three firms to conduct the “Planning Consulting Services for Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code Updates” and postponed the “Request for the Appointment to the Marine Resources Task Force” from three candidates for one seat.
Under Town Manager Items, Council left it to Hernstadt’s discretion to impose and enforce outdoor table guidelines per the Lee County order to allow restaurants to use outdoor seating to expand their dining areas on a case-by-case basis, due to the Governor’s Phase One order limiting their interior seating to 25% capacity. The Town Attorney reminded Council that bars remain shut under the Governor’s existing order, so the only restaurants that can reopen are those whose food sales business is 50% or more of their sales. Hernstadt “encouraged people to contact us before they do something and we will review it, so please just do not assume!” Under Town Attorney Items, Herin said he will prepare a guideline document for Council to approve at its next meeting, authorizing Hernstadt to act on this issue at his discretion, “to minimize conflicts.”
The Town Manager responded to Atterholt’s question confirming that the 2018-19 purple Hurricane Passes for residents remain in effect for the upcoming 2020 season, and the Murphy stated that the upcoming Management & Planning Session on Thursday, May 7, would be a virtual meeting at 9 a.m. Once Governor DaSantis declares his Phase Two reopening order, Council will then resume meetings in Town Hall.