Clearing the Air
On Wednesday February 5, local media representatives attended an information session on Margaritaville – Fort Myers Beach (TPI-FMB), aimed at clarifying some of what developers called “frustrating” and erroneous information that had been disseminated by opponents of the project recently.
Hosted by developer TPI Hospitality representative Tom Torgerson, and TPI-FMB’s government liaison John Gucciardo, the session reviewed the project’s timeline to date, noting that it’s been almost two years since the project won unanimous approval and the details were in front of Beach residents and local media.
Torgerson said in beginning the session that there has been a “fair amount of information that’s being circulated/reported that may not be quite accurate and is really confusing people. We thought that we would give you the knowledge and information of what we, as developers, did on this project and what the town, as the governing agency, did and what’s transpired since – give that background, factually, and give you the documents that memorialized what actually happened.” He explained that the project was vetted by the public and the Town during the last half of 2017 and first half of 2018 and a lot of time has passed since then. “That’s a long time ago…and people forget all the details.”
Gucciardo summarized the project. Properties were purchased in 2014 -15 and a Grand Resorts plan proposed and rejected in 2016. Community outreach resulted in the TPI-FMB plan.
“This project had over two years of public vetting,” Gucciardo said. “We met with business groups, focus groups, hoteliers, residents, civic groups. We literally went door-to-door and solicited input from just about every person on the island.”
In April 2017 the Commercial Planned Development (CPD) application was in the hands of the Town and review began. That review continued until the project was presented to the Local Planning Agency on February 13, 2018. The LPA approved the application on a 5-2 vote. Town Council began their first public hearing on the project in front of a packed house on April 9, 2018 and continued it on April 10, 2018 before sending it to a second and final hearing on May 21, 2018 when it was unanimously approved. The approved document would not be signed by then Mayor Tracey Gore until July 9, 2018.
On August 8, 2018, mere minutes from the filing deadline, two lawsuits were filed, under the name of town resident Chris Patton, against the Town over the approval, a civil action and a Writ of Certiorari. Those lawsuits were “supported, funded, at least in part, and to a certain extent initiated by the owner of the Lani Kai Resort…he’s been pretty open about his involvement,” Gucciardo said. The civil action was withdrawn in June 2019. The Writ of Certiorari was denied on September 11, 2019, with an appeal filed, again at the deadline, on October 10, 2019. That appeal is now in the hands of the Second District Court.
Meanwhile TPI-FMB purchased 15 acres of land two miles inland at the NE corner of Pine Ridge Rd and San Carlos Blvd, behind the 7-11 gas station that sits on the corner. That land will become Beaches Gateway Village, Gucciardo explained, with resort parking, a hotel with separate parking, and eventually up to 150 units of workforce housing. “We will begin work on the hotel this spring,” Torgerson said.
“This is a perfect example of how proactive and user-friendly TPI and Margaritaville have been. One concern we heard was a lack of parking. Our resort plan meets requirements for parking, but we got it, so we looked for extra parking off island…We also heard that the island is becoming less attainable for service workers’ housing – the inventory of affordable housing is just not there…We’re looking for a partner for the residential workforce housing. We’ve spoken to 4-5 potential partners for that.”
“We have 100% neighbor support. Everybody adjacent or across the street from this project supports it,” said Torgerson. “Our existing tenants support us.”
An aerial photo of the downtown beachfront in late August 2004, shows several hotels, severely damaged by Hurricane Charley on August 13, 2004. “The town has been waiting since 2004 for this area to be revitalized,” Torgerson said. “Pre-Charley, there were 240 hotel rooms in our development area and what is now Crescent Beach Park. So when someone says that Margaritaville was granted “too many rooms,” remember that in 2004, 240 rooms existed in that area.”
“In the late 90’s, the town had very ambitious goals and wrote into their Comp Plan that they wanted at-grade level commercial activity downtown,” explained Gucciardo. “But then in 2008, FEMA changed the Velocity Zone map and that challenged the original vision of the town’s Comp Plan.” Torgerson added, “It’s hard provide at-grade level activity when everything is 15 feet in the air.”
Another criticism of the project by opponents is that it will lead to similar projects elsewhere on the island. “The town has a Future Land Use Map (FLUM) and there are only two places where a resort like ours could be built – the downtown area and Santini Plaza.”
Height & Density
The project has most of the resort’s hotel rooms on the bayside of Estero Blvd, with just 30 rooms on the Gulf. Torgerson explained that they heard from town residents that they wanted a view of the Gulf preserved and wanted to avoid a “canyon effect” so the developers “moved the density across the road, away from the beach to open up the view corridor.”
The land where the resort will sit, currently Helmerich Plaza, has no height or story restriction in the town’s Land Development Code (LDC). The beach property height is limited to 40 feet over base flood elevation(BFE), as is neighboring beachfront properties, while properties across Estero Blvd are limited to 30 feet above BFE.
“The highest density allowed in the Comp Plan is in the Pedestrian Commercial areas of the FLUM and that is governed by FAR (Floor Area Ratio). The maximum FAR in Pedestrian Commercial is 2.5. Margaritaville has a max of 1.5 FAR. The development previously approved for the same area but never built was 1.77 FAR.” Later in the presentation, a graph showing other north end resorts included Harbour House, approved in 2001, amended in 2006, with a FAR or 2.55.
In November, Town Council approved the land vacations called for in the TPI-FMB CPD. Recently TPI Hospitality came back to the town and requested that those vacations be reversed. “There have been some concerns about the town’s vacation ordinance, so just to err on the side of caution, we asked that we be allowed to apply under the new vacation ordinance that the town is working on,” Torgerson explained. “The old ordinance is awkward, with sentences incomplete, etc. So, we chose to have our land vacations done under the new vacation ordinance to prevent any successful challenge to our approval.” As soon as the town approves a new ordinance, TPI Hospitality plans to submit their vacation request. The resort area currently has one beach access, at Canal Street. Under the CPD, the area will have three beach access points, plus a ready-to-use Town-owned parking lot.
During the question & answer session, a reporter asked about a recent statement from Patton’s attorney that the project could start at any time. Torgerson responded with a terse, “How many projects has he developed? This is a $260 million project not counting the off-island portion, which brings it to over $300 million. You cannot get financing with an open lawsuit.”
Another question referred to concerns brought up during a recent Town Council meeting by the Ganim family who own neighboring property. Torgerson quickly responded that those concerns have been addressed and approved by the Ganims, the Town and TPI. “They were concerned that there be mobility matting on the beach entry to allow wheelchairs to access the beach and that there be no fence along their property line to allow their guests to have access to the adjacent parking lot and beach access.
Torgerson, responding to another question, stated that TPI-FMB is not buying any more land in the area. He may invest personally, but his personal investments are not TPI Hospitality investments. He also estimated that the resort would bring the equivalent of 300 full time jobs to Fort Myers Beach.
The Margaritaville – FMB project is well on its way to having the permits required, including the environmental ones. “Actually, we’re ahead of schedule as most projects don’t have so many permits lined up before they even break ground,” Torgerson added.
“Sea turtles will be safer than they are now,” he said, referring to the lighting and windows that will be in the new resort. “There will be stormwater treatment where there is none now.”
Traffic & Parking
When people hear that a 254 room resort is coming to downtown, traffic comes up and visions of an extra 250 cars sitting at the base of the bridge appear. Gucciardo pointed out that the resort will not have an entrance or exit on Estero Blvd. and it will remove seven entry points that exist now. “Guests will enter on Crescent Street and exit onto 5th Street,” Torgerson stated. “Our traffic study took into consideration the unique FMB AM/PM peak traffic,” Gucciardo said. In total the traffic study found that the resort would add 65 cars to the morning peak; 15 to the evening peak and overall, result in 147 fewer vehicles on the road per day compared to what is on the site now.
The resort will provide 371 parking spaces on island, plus another 75 off-island for Margaritaville guests and employees. Lee County has already approved their off-island parking lot and shuttle. In expert testimony, Bill Spikowski, an author of the town’s LDC and Comp Plan, stated that the 371 spaces meets code for the project.
When Will it Begin?
Predictably, everyone wanted to know when the project would begin. “If the lawsuit evaporated tomorrow, we’re ready to start construction,” Torgerson said.
“This project is going to happen!” promised Gucciardo in response to a media question.
“It (the lawsuit delay) is painful. It’s a situation where 1-2 individuals are basically imposing their point of view or judgment over 80% of the local community, over the LPA and over Town Council, all for the end result being a delay. There is no real likelihood that this project will be stopped. Even if a defect in the process is found.”
“The zoning and CPD are now permanently attached to that property.”
Margaritaville – FMB Resort Information
Please note that the sketches are preliminary and not final.