Boardwalk, Bayside & Budget
The Fort Myers Beach Town Council held a marathon Management & Planning Session on Thursday, June 4, that approached the 8-hour mark. In an unusual turn, Council bookended the M & P Session with non-agenda items. It began with a discussion originally scheduled to be held during a closed-door Executive Session and ended with Council unexpectedly coming To Order to vote on a firm to conduct the upcoming Town Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code (LDC) reviews.
The M & P Session started with the original Executive Session topic – the controversial proposed Dune Walkover & Boardwalk near the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area by owners of Texas Hold ‘Em LLC and Squeeze Me Inn LLC at 8150 & 8170 Estero Boulevard. The owners have requested to take the matter before a non-binding outside mediator, after the previous Town Council twice voted 3 to 2 to deny them an LDC Special Exemption in the Environmentally Critical Zone to build the structure.
Mayor Ray Murphy asked Town Attorney John Herin, Jr. how much the Town had spent litigating this to date, with Herin replying $225,000 to $250,000. After discussing whether the current Council should vote to grant the owners the Special Exception, they determined to proceed with the mediation that Herin estimated would cost under $10,000 to attempt to find a solution beneficial to the Town. Council appointed Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros to join the mediation team of Herin, Town Manager Roger Hernstadt and Town contract Community Development Director Jason Green. Following the process, the mediator by mid-July will either return a settlement if the two sides agree or a report if they do not for Council to consider for official action. If there is no agreement, further legal action remains possible.
At the M & P session’s end, Hosafros admitted that at Council’s May 18 meeting, she misunderstood Town Staff’s recommendation that Council members personally interview the three finalist firms for the Comprehensive Plan and LDC reviews, rather than affirming Staff’s conclusion of The Corradino Group. Murphy adjourned the planning meeting and called Council to order for roughly ten minutes, where the panel voted 4 to 1 on The Corradino Group. (During M & P meetings, council does not vote on matters before it.) Murphy cast the dissenting ballot in favor of Spikowski Planning Associates, as Bill Spikowski is the author of the Town’s original Comprehensive Plan and LDC.
Bayside Park Redesign
The Bayside Park Redesign team presented Council with its latest concept that moved the proposed building that includes a stage, Mooring Field amenities, public restrooms, and top floor observation deck from the Estero Bay edge to the side adjacent to Nervous Nellie’s Waterfront Eatery. This shift was needed because the redesign team discovered that the main Lee County water and sewer lines run directly underneath the initial location.
Council member Dan Allers inquired if the public could rent the facility for private parties, with Hernstadt stating, “We are trying to make the building have the greatest flexibility.” Council member Bill Veach thought the design would include a Veterans’ Tribute, with the designers saying it still could. Murphy noted early public feedback so far indicates the building looks too “Miami Beach” but he does not necessarily agree. Allers said the building’s first impression is, “you see nothing but its staircases!” Council member Jim Atterholt said he wants public comment on the new design, “so we can give this a thorough vetting; the public has not yet weighed in. This is such a public place, so I want to be careful before we give the nod to go forward.”
Allers questioned if a public park is the right setting for the Mooring Field laundry room, “so that is a glaring issue for me.” He wondered if designers could split the large building into two smaller ones on either side of the waterlines, “to see what that looks like; I just can’t wrap my head around this. How does Council feel about the 3rd story?” Hosafros stated, “I did not like it at first but the more I see it, the more I like it! It really opens up the Bay view,” with Veach agreeing, “It is a major public benefit to have that roof view.” Murphy stated to Allers that he initially shared his concerns, “but that softened today. We don’t want to pull the trigger yet, but I am in favor of continuing the redesign work, to see where it goes.” Veach reminded that the nearby Harbour House offered a proposal to install Mooring Field facilities on its ground floor, “but I am not sure we can put them there due to flood regulations.” Hernstadt replied that he will “have that answer for you when we meet again.”
Under a Water Conservation discussion, Hernstadt explained that the State of Florida has asked the Town to review its current water use ordinances “to be good stewards of this precious resource” and suggested this begin at the Advisory Committee level. Council assigned it to the Marine Resources Task Force.
Council also discussed the Town’s Emergency Management Plan for 2020-21 Hurricane Season. Atterholt said the greatest public concern he hears is “What changes must they make in their preparation due to the coronavirus?” Hernstadt encouraged all residents to leave should Lee County issue a voluntary or mandatory evacuation, saying “the peril from a storm surge I believe is a greater risk relative to the coronavirus. I have been through a Category 5 hurricane and you don’t want to be here for one! I understand the reluctance to take that extra step but you will Thank God you did!” Hosafros added that when an evacuation order comes, the FMB Fire Department leaves, “If they leave, I want to leave, too!” Hernstadt stated that purple Resident Re-entry Passes are valid and available from Town Hall for those who do not have one. See fmbgov.com for instructions on Re-Entry Pass applications.
Council favored accepting the $820,000 allocation from Lee County for Estero Boulevard landscaping for the reFRESH Estero Boulevard Projects, though Murphy cautioned, “You can eat up $800,000 on a 7-mile project pretty quick!” Under “Neighborhood Dock Discussion” and “Resident Proposal for Laguna Shores Channel Monitoring,” Council discussed cost-sharing concepts for eventual dock replacements and channel dredging with various individual neighborhoods. Atterholt suggested the topic be sent to an advisory committee and Veach suggested the Community Resources Advisory Board. Hernstadt stated that another option is to schedule these items on an upcoming Council Meeting agenda so the panel can hear directly from residents.
During a discussion of Building Service Fees, Hernstadt reported that Fort Myers Beach “is at the very low end of the development budget scale and I would like us in the middle, to be self-sufficient.” Atterholt said there must be some assurance of improved services, like faster permit authorizations, for Council to approve an increase. Hernstadt agreed, “Your point is well-taken! If we don’t deliver ‘Class A’ service, you should receive some type of discount,” with Hosafros adding, “if we are not covering costs, I am in favor of this.”
Budget & Contract Employees
Following a lunch break, Council received a two-hour review of its current “Water & Stormwater Utility Rate Study” from GovRates Inc., indicating that Council must increase Water and Stormwater rates. Atterholt said, “If residents realize a rate increase will help with water quality, that may make that pill easier to swallow.” Hosafros noted, “I was on the Council that set the $19.98 monthly rate. When we did that, those Council members were less than enthusiastic about the stormwater project, so they came up with this rate. If memory serves, $25-per-month was strongly recommended. We must be realistic about this and not come back later and raise the rate again.” Murphy added, “I am not of the mind to kick this can down the road to a future Council, as it was kicked down to us. There comes a time when you must face reality and bite the bullet and that time is now.” Council learned that water rates may require a 4.5% increase.
During a 2020 – 2021 budget review, Hernstadt explained that he will present Council with details over the coming weeks on how the Town can retain its present level of services under the current 0.95-mil rate and asked the panel to provide their Add-On Projects List so staff can vet pricing. Under Staffing, Hosafros stated, “We have a lot of people who work under contract with the Town, so this does indicate how much we spend on personnel in totality.” Hernstadt presented a list of six contract employees who earn $35 to $95-per-hour that Council will need to approve prior to September. Hosafros mentioned, “This list is incomplete; these are just the ones we must approve, but there are inspectors and others. I think there is more loyalty to the Town if you are an employee and I would like everybody to think about that.”