Mayor Anita Cereceda held her first monthly ‘mayor meeting’ in the new morning time slot on Wednesday, and the turnout was considerably better than previous meetings held in the evenings. By 8:30am, 10 residents had gathered in Council Chambers for a thoughtful and productive discussion on everything from downtown redevelopment to traffic issues.
The mayor opened the meeting by explaining that the purpose of the informal monthly get-togethers is for people to have an open forum where they can discuss their concerns.
“No matter how long someone’s lived here, if they have a concern it’s my job to address it,” she said.
One of the first questions concerned the stormwater utility and whether or not the creation of it was mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“All the rules have changed now – the requirements for filtration have increased dramatically,” Cereceda replied. “We’ve also done a number of stormwater projects that we funded using the general fund instead of creating a stormwater utility, and it’s my understanding we either can’t or shouldn’t do that.”
The mayor expounded on the issue of water quality by bringing up the recent increase in nutrient-pollution laden freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee.
“I realize the lake is too high from all the rain, but with El Nino we’re projected to get a lot more rain in the coming months, which means more dirty water,” she said. “That, coupled with road construction, will kill Fort Myers Beach. I have called a meeting of all the mayors in Lee County to see if we can do anything about that.”
Another resident wanted to know about Cereceda’s opinion on traffic, and whether or not she had met with Grand Resorts developer Tom Torgerson before his project went public.
“Over the last 20 years, many people have come to me with different plans about what we could do with the downtown area and I listened to all of them,” Cereceda replied. “Never before have we had the opportunity to do something with a willing partner who has accumulated as many properties as Mr. Torgerson. I asked Council if I could be the point person to meet with him until the project went public, and they allowed me to do so. I attended six meetings with him, Town Manager Don Stilwell and County Commissioner Larry Kiker where a progressive set of ideas were presented to us.”
Anita went on to say the island has always had an extreme lack of parking.
“Some people believe more parking will bring more traffic, but I disagree – I believe that if you have a place to put a car, that gets one more car off the road,” she said. “And for those who are telling people they can stop Torgerson from developing anything, that is a lie and it’s irresponsible – he has the right to develop something. As far as my business, if his development goes through, my store will be in the ‘old’ section and I may be out of business within 5 years – especially if my lease goes up.”
The mayor said what she most hopes for in the coming year is that people keep an open mind.
“As this election cycle comes and in the next year as Torgerson’s group makes their application, I hope we can engage in the problem solving that this opportunity give us,” she said. “The Town has the final say on all of this, and as we begin to exert our leverage I’m looking forward to having these discussions.”
One thing Cereceda said that Torgerson’s group has not made clear is the issue of beach renourishment and who will pay for it.
“He’s not promising to continually renourish the beach in front of his properties, he’s promising to put a plan in place,” she said. “What that plan is – be it a CRA or the use of Tourist Development Council (TDC) funds, we have no idea. I don’t even think he knows until he engages with the County and the Town – he has not done that yet. It’s all a matter of negotiation. My gut feeling is, if he was told the only way he’d get his seawall permitted would be to pay for it himself, he would agree to do so.”
Anita said that, personally, she thinks the whole idea of beach renourishment is rather ridiculous as beaches are always changing but ‘since it’s already happened than we need to deal with what we have’.
Some residents from Madison and Washington Streets said they are experiencing bad flooding when it rains.
“There is no short-term fix for that, unfortunately,” Cereceda said. “That neighborhood is likely to be the target for the next stormwater project but not for at least a year. Maintenance may help some.”
Cereceda wanted everyone to understand that what the Council did Monday by setting the fees was ‘just a baby step’.
“We really won’t know what we need until the facilities plan is in place,” she said.
Another resident said he is concerned that everyone is focused on downtown redevelopment when the biggest change facing the island is all the ‘McMansions’ being built.
“We’ve looked at that, and looked at ways we could incentivize people to keep their old cottages,” Cereceda replied. “Unfortunately, we have the FEMA regulations requiring people to build up. This goes back to our comprehensive plan, which the Local Planning Agency (LPA) is currently in the process of reviewing.”
Anita explained that the original comp plan dates back to incorporation, when the big focus was on the fallout from DiamondHead.
“What happened was, the county vacated a lot of public beachfront land and sold it to the developer, over the protests and cries of hundreds of residents,” she said. “Our county commissioner at that time didn’t seem all that concerned with protecting our interests, and that was what caused incorporation to finally pass. The comp plan was written right after. So now, 20 years later, what were we trying to accomplish? We were focused on height, but I think we really wanted to preserve our view corridors – which can only be done if we require side setbacks, even 2 stories will block views.”
Cereceda said that conversation is one that Council will be having in the next few months.
“Do we allow someone to build higher if they lessen the building’s footprint to allow for a better view?” she said. “Another thing we discussed way back then but did not include – and now I wish we had – was language addressing design guidelines. That way we could keep the Old Florida feel of the community.”
Mayor Anita Cereceda will host her next monthly mayor meeting on Wednesday, March 2nd from 8-10am at Town Hall.
Keri Hendry Weeg