Density, Disaster, Errant Canals


LPA & Council Brainstorm

When the Fort Myers Beach Town Council and the Local Planning Agency sat down for a joint meeting Tuesday morning following the monthly LPA meeting, there were just three agenda items, but they were big issue items that would keep the combined meeting attendees at the table for nearly four hours. LPA chair Megan Heil opened the meeting where all five Council members, all seven LPA members, the Town planners, manager and attorney were in attendance. She explained that the LPA was looking for direction and council’s input on those three topics: Density and Existing Subdivisions, Pre- and Post-Disaster Buildback and Seawall & Property Line Discrepancies.

Density & Existing Subdivisions

“Where did the 15,000 square feet come from?” asked Heil to begin the meeting, referring to a provision in the Land Development Code (LDC) which allows some residential densities to be computed using half the width of adjacent streets and canals. If that computation is greater than 1.5 units/acre, it can be rounded up to 2 dwelling units where two-family and multi-family units are allowed.(Section 34-632 (3))

“Back in 1995, we didn’t contemplate the type of development that is now happening on this island,” said Council member Anita Cereceda. Mayor Tracey Gore posited that the purpose was to allow duplexes to be rebuilt. “But what’s happening in the past couple of years – can you have two houses? I say no, you can have a duplex.” LPA member Dan Hughes and Cereceda agreed that the original intent was for a duplex.

LPA member Jane Plummer disagreed. “That’s pretty much thrown out the window, it’s been done so many times on Palermo and other streets. It would be ridiculous to now say that you can’t do that anymore.”

Town Planner Jason Green told the group that he had 3 questions – change the two-units to a Special Exception, allow two units by right and should those two units be attached or detached?

Cereceda asked the group to consider whether they wanted to see a giant house or two smaller houses? “Would we want to see more development to the scale of our island or do we want to not give that option and encourage a large scale home?” Gore responded, “If you say you can have two houses, you’d have two big houses.

“People don’t want to spend millions for a duplex,” Vice-Mayor Joanne Shamp said. “I think people will choose to build that one house.” She said an example of what two structures on a single lot would look like is next to Junkanoo. That development is currently in litigation with the Town.

Following a lengthy discussion on what defines a duplex, that being a shared wall, a roof is not enough, the group moved on to the question of whether the roadway and canal can be used in density calculations.

Council member Dennis Boback suggested eliminating the use of the right of way, road or water, and the use of rounding up, with most in agreement.

Cereceda said she would like to see some practical examples of how this would change cases that council had seen in the past.

Council member Bruce Butcher brought up a concern about property rights. “If I have a lot on Estero and I thought I was able to build 2 units and we’re going to change that to one, is that taking away my right?” Town Attorney John Herin answered, “That depends, there’s no blanket answer. Was there any interpretation by staff that you’d be able to build two homes? Was it in writing before you bought the property?”

Green said he would write an administrative clarification of the LDC regarding the 15,000 square foot rule, non-usage of road or water right-of-way for density and the definition of a duplex and then move forward with an LDC amendment which would go to the LPA and Council for approval.

Pre- and Post- Disaster Buildback

Both the LDC and Comprehensive Plan include provisions for buildback and the LPA has been discussing buildback issues for several years off-and-on. Shamp explained that pre-disaster buildback rules were meant to allow people to put up a nicer, newer, stronger building before a disaster struck. Post-disaster buildback was meant to allow you to rebuild what you had. The group had plenty of opinions on whether people should have to build to code after a disaster.

LPA member Dan Hughes first brought up the elephant in the room, council’s approval of the Dullard development last year under pre-disaster buildback that allowed a large increase in square feet. The LPA turned the request down citing the LDC, which states no increase in square feet is allowed under pre-disaster buildback. The council then approved it. “In the Comp Plan, the current council emasculated the current code,” Hughes said. “The precedent was there. Do you now want to amend the code to what has been set in Dullard?”

Cereceda added, “This was originally created so that if you had a house like mine or Joanne’s, an older house, non-conforming, you could tear that house down and rebuild the same house footprint size, not tear it down and build whatever you wanted.”

“That particular case has opened up a new interpretation of the code and we need to get this hardened back to its intention. I already see one teeing up,” said Heil.

Gore compared the decision to the council’s approval of TPI. “Since we’re talking about that one case, look what we did with TPI!” Cereceda explained that TPI was a CPD (Commercial Planned Development) not a pre-disaster buildback. “Doesn’t matter, we’re talking about density,” Gore retorted.

Moving past that hot button, the group discussed  using a formula that would allow increased size for decreased density and agreed to have the LPA work on updating the buildback rules.

Hughes pointed out that changes would require both an LDC amendment and a Comp Plan amendment, leading Heil to state, “People see the Comp Plan as a static document and it’s not. The island has changed. The world has changed. We need to look at the Comp Plan.”

Seawalls & Property Lines

The LPA and Council have both heard recent requests for land vacations along seawalls and setback variances which are tied to the same problem – the platted canal does not match the seawall, resulting in property owners lot lines ending several feet shy of the seawall. In other cases the canals are encroaching on private property. So far, the town is aware of problems with canals at Donora Blvd, Avenida Pescadora, Crescent, Palermo/Carolina and others.

Town Manager Roger Hernstadt said his staff is working on a method where a neighborhood group can come to the town about this issue or dredging or any other neighborhood amenity and let council know they wish to have something done. Council will then have staff determine the cost to do so, how much, if anything, council will contribute and how much the neighborhood would pay.

Herin explained that from a legal point, a town-wide fix was not possible. Specific properties had to be identified.

Shamp brought up a concern about town liability if someone is hurt on that strip of land next to the canal and Herin told her that the town does not have an ownership interest in that property, just a right-of-way.

The combined group agreed that the LPA and council would handle these issues on a case-by-case basis, but left open the possibility that neighborhoods could come in together to save on costs.


By Missy Layfield