First Impressions

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It’s been over a month since our council election. The voters spoke and placed two vocal opponents to the Grand Resort FMB concept on council. Those votes were enough to convince the developer to step back from the concept he’d been working on.

A win for our Town? Only time will tell.

During the campaign our two new council members were adamant that they weren’t against all redevelopment, just the Grand Resorts concept. They wanted developers to follow all of our codes and not ask for any variances or special exceptions.

In spite of the fact that variances and special exceptions are granted rather frequently here and are a fact of life in any town with a Land Development Code that was created well after most of it was already built out. Many of our most prominent commercial properties have a string of variances or exceptions on their record.

If we are going to be a town that will stop granting those variances or special exceptions, let’s put that on the table now, so those residents hoping to update their property and businesses hoping to build in our town know that before they invest in property and building plans.

Hopefully the Local Planning Agency, the Town’s advisory board tasked with careful consideration of all variance and special exception requests, will meet in May. They haven’t met since February – the first time in at least the last 8 years that they’ve taken two consecutive unplanned months off.

After the LPA hears and votes on variance and special exception requests, they are passed to Town Council, which is not bound by the LPA’s decision. How Council treats the next few months of variance and exception requests will tell us a lot about whether they mean to deny all variances going forward or if the campaign talk just meant variances related to downtown redevelopment.

Our position is that Town Council should be clear about their intent, whether it’s to continue granting variances on a case by case basis or to block all of them, as implied by the stance that developers follow the code without variances. And whatever it is, it should apply to every application that comes before them, including downtown redevelopment. Fair is fair.

Our Island is caught between a 20-year-old Land Development Code and FEMA rules that change every few years. The Town has had a series of professional planners that have tried to explain how those rules squeeze property owners and make it very difficult to update buildings. The result is a bunch of homes and commercial properties that suffer from what the pros politely call “deferred maintenance” – a euphemism for shabby-looking buildings.

We can keep our Town funky without dilapidated buildings. We really don’t think those add to our Island ambiance, whether they are downtown or mid-Island.

A good portion of our downtown is looking pretty grim these days. Maybe it’s because of the construction barricades that seem to highlight the empty storefronts, empty lots and poorly maintained buildings. Time Square is in need of a facelift and one is already in the planning stages, but the overall entry to our Town sends a pretty sad message to our visitors.

We are all enamored with our beautiful view of the Gulf as we crest the Matanzas Pass Bridge – the view that tells us we are home. But what does the frame around that view say about our Island?

After driving past a strip club, empty pawnshops and a mish-mash of empty buildings on San Carlos Island, our downtown entry shows visitors more of the same. To be honest, it’s not exactly a welcoming sight. Next time you drive onto the Island, try to see it as if it isn’t a familiar sight. What’s your impression?

In the last six months, there was a lot of talk about how the proposed downtown project would ruin our town – take away our small town ambiance  – something that we don’t think a ¼ mile stretch of new anything could possibly do on a 7-mile Island, whether it’s a string of hotels or a roller coaster. Our Town is defined by its people and their welcoming attitude not by whether there’s a national hotel property or a parking ramp here. If we as a Town are to ever grow up, we have to stop being spooked by every new idea that comes along.

There are going to be plenty of new ideas that come forward in the next ten years and none of them will take us back to the 1960’s or whatever era you define as the golden years of Estero Island. Like it or not, we’re in the 21st century. We can honor our past without trying to live in it. We don’t have to approve every idea, but we owe it to our Town to at least consider them.

We need to ask, ‘Will they fit into our collective vision of our Town’s future? Will they add to our Island’s ambiance and vitality?’ If the answer is yes, then we need to find ways to help new ideas and plans work with our codes.

Or are we satisfied with empty lots and empty buildings?

 

Missy Layfield