Development a Slippery Slope

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Developer Tom Torgerson unveiled his grand plan for a total re-do of downtown Fort Myers Beach to a standing-room-only audience in Fort Myers (Why wasn’t it held on the Beach?), and according to reports in the local press, the meeting lived up to Mayor Cereceda’s prediction that it would “blow peoples’ minds.”

I couldn’t attend, but the News-Press’s account of the affair was laced with words like, “I imagine; if; could; it is not impossible; would; and – a preliminary study shows.” These “conditional” terms are all “salesman-speak” and sound good, but carry no guarantee of anything. (For example – “It is not impossible that I could win the lottery and if I did, I imagine that would be a great benefit.” Of course, I would first have to buy a ticket.)

I haven’t met Mr. Torgerson and it is not impossible (to use one of his terms) that he is an entirely honest, upstanding, fine fellow. However, he is selling something and if the term “caveat emptor – buyer beware,” means anything, anyone with an interest in the Town should heed it now. He has spoken of how he and his wife “fell in love” with the Town. Why, then, is he proposing turning the town into something else?

Apparently, in return for a list of hoped-for benefits to the town, none of which he can be held accountable for in case they don’t materialize, he wants permission to build a five-story, 200-room Holiday Inn, a six-story 100-unit Marriott, and a seven-story 176-unit Hilton that contains within it an 86-unit Hampton Inn. His “benefits” to the town include a four-story (or more) parking garage right at the foot of the bridge and a “rotary,” coupled with a re-routing of Estero Boulevard, which he hopes will solve the traffic problem. It won’t. It will simply move the bottleneck farther south.

Now is the time for every resident of Fort Myers Beach, and particularly members of the Local Planning Agency and Town Council, to remember why the town was incorporated in the first place. We exist because twenty years ago, a developer convinced the County government to permit a high-rise hotel that most beach residents didn’t want.

Development is inevitable, even desirable. The empty lots downtown need to be made into something. If I were on either the LPA or Council, my response to Mr. Torgerson would be to show him the website where he can download the town’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code and tell him that if he has a proposal that complies with both, to come back and present it. The code exists for a reason and now isn’t the time to pimp it out. This proposal puts us at the top of a slippery slope. If we yield to this request to re-write the rules, it will only be a matter of months until the next developer comes and says, “Hey, you gave this to the last guy.” At that point, it only ends when we look just like Fort Lauderdale.

The overriding question that everyone should ask is: “Just exactly whose life is going to be improved by implementing this and just exactly how will it improve the quality of mine?” Until there are detailed answers that are convincing enough to permit the project to go ahead, the only person whose life is certain to improve is Mr. Torgerson’s. Apparently, there is already speculation about other individuals in and out of government whose lives might be improved, too.

I predict that over the next several months, we’re all going to find out a great deal about what a lot of the movers and shakers in our town and county government are really made of.

A long-scheduled medical appointment kept me from this meeting, but I’ll surely be at the one at the Chapel-by-the-Sea on the 14th at 5:30. If you give a damn about the future of our town, you should be there, too.

Jay Light

Fort Myers Beach