May We Live in Interesting Times

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This week one of our favorite restaurant servers commented to us that it must be a very interesting time to run a newspaper on our Island. We would not disagree.

It gets more interesting as we approach some important decisions on the Island, one of them a Town Council election.

There are a lot of issues in this election. Though you could be forgiven if you are under the impression that this election is an unofficial referendum for the Grand Resorts project. It does seem to be all many folks are focused on.

And that is unfortunate. Our community is facing a number of challenges – the Estero Blvd project, stormwater, budget, beach and bay access questions — just to name a few. Redevelopment along a quarter-mile stretch of our 7-mile Island is just one of them. Yep, all the noise is about a mere 3.6% of our beachfront.

The final developer’s meeting to present the concept and ask for input was this week. And he was again interrupted by mumbling, signs and catcalls from those who don’t like his proposal.

Let’s back up to late November when Grand Resorts first provided a glimpse of their initial plans to the full Town Council and Lee County Board of Supervisors. Islanders were unhappy that they had to go off the beach to hear about the project. Then the developer hosted a series of three meetings here, and with each one, showed changes made that were a result of the input Islanders had shared.

Those meetings were not required. They were 100% voluntary. They were met with curiosity by many. But they were also met with suspicion, anger and accusations by others.

The developer was paying off Town & County officials. The fix was in and this was a done deal. High rises were going to block out the sun downtown. The project would make our water quality worse. The entire island would change if this were built downtown. We heard it all – you probably did too.

Some of this is a small town’s reaction to something new. But some of it is willful ignorance. If you want to see a boogieman in the closet, then you will. Especially if you refuse to look when the door is open and the light on.

The bigger issue is that none of this is official yet. Until a plan has been submitted to the Town, it’s only a concept. And one that we have no legal right to know anything about at this point because there has been no application yet. We only know about the concept because the developer made the effort to work with Islanders to fine-tune it.

Think about it. Imagine that all we knew today was that Grand Resorts FMB had purchased several pieces of property in the downtown area. Nobody else has revealed their ideas before required to in public hearings in front of the Local Planning Agency and Town Council. And no one has faulted them for not doing so. Yet Islanders seem ready to tar and feather the one guy who bothers to ask us what we think.

How different would our Town Council election look and sound had Grand Resorts held their cards close to their vest?

Before the plan is pronounced contrary to our Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Codes, how about we wait to see exactly what plan is submitted to Town Hall?

And those codes. The LDC, under constant revision, yet still fuzzy enough that it cost Town taxpayers $250,000 not that long ago over an elevated pool. Had a settlement not been agreed upon, we would have had a court decision that clarified exactly what the LDC permitted. And we might not have lost the Town employees who were scapegoated for doing their jobs. Water under the bridge. But we still have the LDC that Town Council promised to review and update but haven’t.

It’s now 2016 and we have residents arguing what the code does and does not allow and we have another developer with what sounds like a different interpretation. All feels kind of déjà vu doesn’t it? And not in a good way.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to wonder if we’re going to be looking yet again at two or three different interpretations of what our LDC allows. It may be simpler to blame differences in LDC interpretation on Town staff errors, but reality says it’s more likely that the LDC needs an update.

And then there are variances and special exceptions. Any regular LPA attendee knows that many projects that come through the Town Hall process, request and are often granted variances and/or exceptions. Before we demand that everyone follow the code, we should acknowledge that there are a whole lot of variances and exceptions floating around the Island.

Islanders can argue all they want about the intent of those who formed our town 20 years ago, but legally, it’s the code that matters. Count us as still waiting for a close review and updating of that code.

Bob & Missy Layfield