FMB Community Development
Since being hired by the Town of Fort Myers Beach last summer, Director of Community Development Kara Stewart has been busy streamlining and upgrading the Town’s permitting, zoning and planning departments to make them more consistent and user-friendly. This week, we met with Stewart so she could explain what she and her staff are working on now – a way to make enforcement of the Town’s Land Development Code (LDC) easier by creating a template for people to follow when implementing the LDC regulations.
“What we are doing is creating an Administrative Code – which the Town did not have when I started working here,” Kara said. “This will give Town Council the ability to partake in how to implement the LDC.”
Stewart told us that the plan is to start small – with single-family homes and accessory structures.
“The Administrative Code will outline the steps people need to take to get a permit,” she said. “For instance, say the LDC requires a certain amount of setback. How do you determine that setback? This will give us the ability to require that a survey be taken. With new construction, drainage is another big issue. We already have the regulations in the LDC, this will allow us a way to ensure that the requirements are met and how they are met.”
Stewart says that the way things are done now is too inconsistent, which leads to many issues.
“Especially with staff turnover – there are too many inconsistencies – we need to get everyone doing the same thing,” she said. “We have the LDC, but how do we get there? This will memorialize a methodology and streamline the process, rather than write new codes and get more confusing.”
Stewart, who lives with her family off-island, came to Fort Myers Beach with 17 years of community development experience with Lee County. But her experience in the construction industry began long before that.
“I worked in first residential and then commercial construction in New York after I graduated from Villanova University,” Stewart told us. “Then I got tired of the weather and took a job with Lee County. During my 17 years – I was the Senior Department Manager of Community Development. I worked to develop and implement processes for permitting, plan review, zoning, code enforcement and construction licensing. I also worked on automating their systems – something I’m also working on for the Town – things like computer tracking programs.”
Stewart told us that she ‘was about ready to retire’ when former Town Manager Don Stilwell tapped her to be part of the Town’s team.
“I had just left the county, I really thought I was going to take a break for a while” she said, laughing. “But Don called, and I love what I do, so back I came.”
“Between Principal Planner Matt Noble (hired in January 2015) and Kara, we now have a huge reservoir of knowledge in the planning and zoning department,” then-Town Manager Stilwell told us shortly after hiring Stewart last June. “Kara was the top permitting person for Lee County, so she knows the County’s process and the Town’s, plus she’s got great customer service skills and knows that the job of government is to help people…she’s already shown us ways we could do things better.”
One of those ideas is to upgrade the services available online, something Kara says is really helpful to people who don’t want to make multiple trips to Town Hall.
“One of the first things we initiated was allowing people to fill out permits for mechanical (electrical, etc.) work online,” Kara said. “They can fill out the permit, press a button, and it comes straight to us. This expedites the process for both tradespeople and homeowners.”
Stewart told us she and her staff have also worked hard to streamline the Town’s permitting process.
“There are still a few technical things to tweak with that, but we identified what needed to be done there – now the Town’s turning stuff over pretty quickly and I’m comfortable with how fast we are,” she said. “The county’s gotten pretty responsive as well.”
Along with the Administrative Code, Stewart and her staff are now working on making the zoning process smoother and will be bringing a new floodplain ordinance to Council shortly after they return from their July break.
“We’re also working to get more payments be able to be made online – we should have that going in the next few months,” she told us. “More and more automation – the more things people can do online, the better. And the big thing is, we’re working on a new website for the Town that’s more user-friendly.”
Keri Hendry Weeg