Oh! The Places We’ve Been

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    2010 – 2020

    As The Island Sand Paper winds down, we’ve taken a look back at the stories we’ve told, events we covered and topics that have filled our pages. We thought our readers might enjoy a brief look at the stories and events that we think have had the greatest impact on our Island community over the past ten years. It was a struggle but we whittled the list down to a baker’s dozen. The list could have easily held another two dozen or more, but here, in roughly chronological order, are the top 13:

    Oil Spill – 2010

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    Ostego Bay Environmental Response Co-op holds an oil spill response training session in 2010. File photo.

    On April 20, 2010. The Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, part of the BP Macondo Prospect, exploded, killing 11 crewmen and unleashing the largest marine oil spill in history. The rig was located about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the northern Gulf. The well would not be capped for months, leading to over 210 million gallons of oil gushing into the northern Gulf of Mexico. Over a million gallons of oil dispersants were used. Several efforts to stop the flow failed before it was finally capped on September 19, 2010, nearly five months after the explosion. Severe environmental damage occurred along the coastlines of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi as well as the wildlife  and marine life of the Gulf, creating an environmental impact that is still being studied. Tourism, the lifeblood of many Gulf of Mexico communities, was severely damaged. While Southwest Florida beaches remained clean and clear, the international attention on the oil spill led to many having the mistaken belief that oil was washing up on all beaches in the Gulf of Mexico and as a result, tourism suffered throughout Florida, including Fort Myers Beach. The oil spill tourism slump continued into the 2011 winter season.

    Library Addition – 2010

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    The newly remodeled and expanded Fort Myers Beach Library was completed in January 2013. File photo.

    The addition/renovation of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library had already been in planning for seven years in 2010, with $7 million saved for its construction when objections to the plan emerged in the fall of 2010. Detractors of the addition claimed decreasing Beach School enrollment, the recession, e-readers, increased computer use and the lack of a referendum as reasons to backtrack on the plan to add to the Beach Library. When they got nowhere with the Library Board, detractors went to Town Council, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners and eventually the ballot box in November 2011, yet were unable to stop the popular project. Groundbreaking was held in April 2011, with the addition opening in October 2012, and the complete new facility opening January 13, 2013. The environmentally-friendly facility features an expanded computer use area, reading room, a large Community Room, café and increased space for additional books as well as electronic media. The third floor Commons Room regularly features the work of local artists and the adjacent Community Room hosts classes, seminars and community meetings.

    It’s Turtle Time!

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    Turtle hatchling makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. File photo.

    The non-profit Turtle Time, Inc., has been monitoring local marine turtle nesting on Big Hickory Island as well as Bonita, Bunche, and Fort Myers Beaches for 31 years. For four of the past five years, the number of Fort Myers Beach nests have set a record, breaking the century mark in 2019 for the first time with 112 nests. No one, however, expected that figure to potentially fall in 2020! The vast majority of FMB’s nesting sea turtles are the Loggerheads that tend to return to lay their eggs every other year, meaning the projection for this season was not the 112 total from 2019 but the 68 nests from 2018. To date, however, there are already 109 nests on Fort Myers Beach! “This season started out in an unusual fashion,” reported Turtle Time founder Eve Haverfield, “due to beach closures from the coronavirus pandemic. Sea turtle nesting season was to officially start on May 1, running through October 31, but no one told the turtles! On Thursday morning, April 30, a record-setting five loggerhead sea turtle nests were found on the island! Five nests in one day – especially before the actual start of nesting season – is incredulous and absolutely thrilling. I have been monitoring our beaches for 30 years now and on Sanibel for 10 years before that, and never had a day like this!”

    The primary bane to nesting turtles and their hatchlings is artificial light from beach properties. These lights can prevent females from coming ashore or choosing an inferior nesting location from which few hatchlings survive. Lights disorient hatchlings, causing them to move toward that source and away from the Gulf, resulting in death from dehydration, exhaustion, or automobiles, so Turtle Time advocates switching to Amber LED Lights. In addition to those, close drapes or blinds after dark, never shine a flashlight or use flash photography on sea turtles, move boats or furniture behind beach vegetation each night, keep dogs on a leash, and fill in any holes dug into the sand as hatchlings and adult turtles can fall in and die. For turtle-friendly light fixtures, contact Town Hall at 239-765-0202 or visit myFWC.com. Turtle Time offers a wealth of turtle nesting information at turtletime.org

    Elevated Pools – 2013

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    The topic of elevated pools roiled the town for several years. The town had over a dozen existing elevated pools in 2013. Photo courtesy of Town of Fort Myers Beach.

    As FEMA building codes have increased the required elevation of living space in new residences, the question of whether pools could be elevated to match the level of that living space emerged. In 2013, according to several attorneys, the town’s Land Development Code (LDC) did not address pool heights and elevated pools were treated the same as ground-level pools and required to have 5-foot setbacks from canals. At that point the island had about 14 elevated pools and permits had been issued for a number of new elevated pools. Neighbors voiced concerns about view corridors, particularly in regard to several homes under construction on Palermo Circle. Town Council was informed of “some gray areas” in the LDC by staff, and asked for their input. Later that fall, council would approve a moratorium on elevated pools while they sorted out what the rules should be. Meanwhile an anonymous smear campaign accusing town staff of bribery emerged, prompting staff to call for an independent inquiry which found the allegation false and named a disgruntled former town employee as the source. Lawyers for property owners got involved in the elevated pool issue, litigation followed and the town, while eventually amending the LDC to address pool heights, agreed to a June 2014 settlement that included paying $250,000 to the developer who had been issued permits for elevated pools, then had them rescinded. Before it was all over, the town lost a Town Manager and a Director of Community Development, followed by several members of the planning staff. The controversy impacted the 2014 and 2016 Town Council elections, as well.

    reFRESH Estero Boulevard – 2015

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    The reFRESH Estero Blvd continues to work its way down the Island. Segments 1 and 2, shown in this photo, are now complete. Photo by Gary Mooney.

    After more than five years of continuous Estero Boulevard construction on various sections of Fort Myers Beach, to upgrade, install or replace underground utilities, waterlines, sanitary sewer, stormwater drainage and the roadway, the end is finally in sight. Lee County Commissioners approved the contract for the final two segments of the project on June 16 and the projects are on track to be substantially complete by the end of 2021.

    Never meant to relieve traffic congestion due to the narrow right-of-way that does not allow the addition of any more traffic lanes, the project does provide bike (Segment 2-6) and bus pull-off lanes and a walkable sidewalk on both sides of the road. The center lane drainage component was initially plagued by paver problems that required replacement and releveling of pavers. In the completed segments of the road, where heavy traffic is no longer routed over the center lane, paver issues have been rare.

    The reFRESH project is really two projects, the Town’s waterline replacement and storm water project and the county’s roadwork project. Beginning in July 2015, the first Estero Blvd. segment faced old and unidentified pipes, lines, cables and more in a tight 50-foot right-of-way from Crescent Street to Lovers Lane and was completed in March 2017.  Segment 2 (to Publix) is also now complete. Segments 3 & 4 south to Albatross Street will be complete by this fall, leaving only the final two segments to the south end of the island. For information, or email updates, including an online construction zone map, see www.reFRESHFMBeach.com.

    TPI; Margaritaville – 2015

    Mayor Tracey Gore shakes hands with TPI representative Tom Torgerson on May 21, 2018 as Dennis Boback looks on and media surround them, following the unanimous approval of the TPI/FMB project. Photo by Gary Mooney.

    In the spring of 2015, island resident Tom Torgerson purchased a block of land at Canal Street and Estero Blvd in the name of Grand Resort. By the end of May 2015, more than $31 million in commercial downtown property had been purchased by TPI Hospitality, the parent company of Grand Resort. In late November 2015, TPI revealed its Grand Resort plan with four hotels, nine restaurants plus retail, conference center and parking. After multiple presentations and months of feedback leaning toward, “It’s just too big,” the plan was pulled back and a second plan, dubbed Times Square Resorts was presented to several focus groups with additional changes made in response. Finally in November 2016, almost a year after the initial reveal, the third plan was presented which included a beachside water park, pedestrian bridge, hotel and utilized part of the Seafarer’s location owned by Lee County.

    The town and county passed the topic back and forth, each insisting that the other be the one to initiate any land swap conversations. The stalemate let to TPI redesigning the project without the Seafarer’s property. The TPI/FMB project application was submitted to the town on March 30, 2017. Over the next 13 months, the project would be reviewed and fine-tuned before its first public hearing before the Local Planning Agency on February 13, 2018. That hearing would go nearly eight hours and end with a 5-2 vote approving the application and sending it to Town Council. Council held two lengthy hearings, approving the proposal unanimously twice on April 10 and May 21. The 5.9 acre resort has 254 rooms, a beach side waterpark, restaurants and ground floor parking. Construction was set to begin Spring 2019 with completion in 2021. Following approval, TPI reached an agreement to brand the resort Margaritaville – Fort Myers Beach.

    Lawsuits; Whalegate – 2018

    On the last possible day to file a legal challenge, Island resident Chris Patton sued the town over the approval of Margaritaville-FMB.

    Between those two unanimous council votes in 2018, Mayor Tracey Gore would voice her opposition to the project and afterward, support her friend Chris Patton as she filed two lawsuits against the town over its approval of the project. On August 8, 2018, Patton, with the open, public support of Robert Conidaris, owner of the Lani Kai Island Resort, filed the lawsuits claiming that the town did not follow its own rules, did not allow Patton due process to speak against the project and that she would be adversely affected by the project. On September 13, 2018, Gore and another council member Dennis Boback, would meet with Patton at a popular local pub, discussing the TPI project and Patton’s lawsuit, just 11 days before both Gore and Boback were scheduled to meet with the rest of council in closed session to determine the town’s response to those lawsuits. The Estero Island Taxpayers Association submitted audio recordings to the state attorney’s office with questions about possible Sunshine Law and ethics violations. The state attorney response indicated that there was no Sunshine Law violation, but another entity was responsible for ethics violations. The EITA chose not to pursue further action. Gore would demand a retraction and threaten to sue The Island Sand Paper for defamation. No retraction was issued; no lawsuit against the newspaper was filed. Gore later decided not to run for re-election in March 2019. Boback ran and came in a distant fourth in a four candidate race.

    In late June 2019, Patton would withdraw one lawsuit, shortly before a new state law went into effect opening those who challenge a local government’s Comp Plan and lose, to the risk of having to pay the government’s legal fees. The second suit, requesting a Writ of Certiorari was denied in September 2019, then appealed by Patton in October 2019. The Second District Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on June 9, 2020, and issued a denial of that appeal on July 8.

    Update: On July 9, 2020 Chris Patton filed her third lawsuit against the Town of Fort Myers Beach seeking to stop the Margaritaville – FMB Resort. This one challenges the constitutionality of the use of “exceptional circumstances” in the town’s code
    [Section 34-1803(a)(2)]. 

    Water Quality – 2016

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    Lake Okeechobee cyanobacteria bloom on June 29, 2020 as captured by Sentinel 2.

    From January 2016 to June 2018, The Island Sand Paper covered 11 water quality stories, indicating that even by that early date, there were cracks beginning to show in our area’s clean water component, leading to annual forums like “Save Our Water” and the “Southwest Florida American Water Resources Association (AWRA)” Conferences. Leading scientists and speakers emphasized that not only was water our most precious resource for life and recreation, but in Southwest Florida, it drove our economic engine due to our reliance on tourism, including our beaches, hotels, boating and fishing, industry, environment and – yes – even our local weekly newspaper! While local water quality worsened in Fall 2017 with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the bottom dropped out in late June 2018, with the twin environmental tragedies of Blue-Green Algae released from Lake Okeechobee down the Caloosahatchee River and a huge Red Tide outbreak off the Gulf of Mexico coast, leading to an economic disaster on Fort Myers Beach and the surrounding communities through fall of that year. Since then, the Sand Paper has printed over 60 articles about water quality, making it the most covered topic in these pages, drawing attention to the complex puzzle that is water quality in Southwest Florida: Lake Okeechobee, Kissimmee River watershed, agricultural water use, Caloosahatchee River watershed, nutrient pollution and local sources of water pollution. One lesson well learned: The only way things get better is by keeping the pressure on elected officials to do the right thing. Don’t stop!

    Short-Term Rentals – 2017

    Short term rental regulation was a hot topic in 2017 and remains so.

    One of the most contentious Town Council topics over the past five years was the controversial Short Term Rental (STR) Ordinance Update that passed on May 7, 2018. Council ratified the amended STR Ordinance after a year of debate, with 43 of the 52 residents and businessowners who addressed Council during Public Comment speaking against it. The STR Ordinance requires that all short term rental property owners must register and pay a fee to the Town within 90 days of any STR business; receive a registration number for all advertisements; supply the unit address; owner contact information; 24/7 local contact to address any issues within one hour; and renew this information and fee annually, among other items. New registrants pay a $100 fee. If the Town’s Special Magistrate finds that a property had three violations in a 365-day period, the fee increases to $1,000 for the next year, and for those with four or more violations in a 365-day time frame, it is $1,000 for each of the next three years. Through 2019, the Town had more than 1,600 registrations, collecting over $210,000 in fees. Roughly 40 condominiums exercised the Code’s Opt-Out provision. The 2018 ordinance did not alter the town’s 2003 Short Term Rental restrictions which limits rentals to monthly rentals, except for properties along Estero Blvd, or between Estero Blvd and the Gulf of Mexico and those properties identified in 2003 as weekly rentals. Rental property owners are advised to contact Town Hall for complete details on STR rules.

    In February 2016, the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department enacted a Fire Safety Ordinance that calls for the registration and inspection of transient, vacation, short term and timeshare rentals and non-owner occupied two family homes. Transient is interpreted as rentals of 30 days or less. STR properties that qualify are required to register with both the Town and Fire Department.

    Hurricane Irma – 2017

    Post Hurricane Irma familiar scene: trees stripped of leaves and piles of vegetation at the curb awaiting pick up. Photo by M. Layfield.

    On September 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma roared ashore as a Category 4 storm at Marco Island, forty miles south of Fort Myers Beach. Cat 2 hurricane force winds would engulf Estero and San Carlos Islands that Sunday night. The National Hurricane Center had predicted a possible storm surge of 10 -15 feet, leading many residents to evacuate when mandatory evacuation orders were issued. Fortunately, the storm veered east and storm surge was not a problem on Fort Myers Beach, though many saw water 3 feet or more over their seawalls. The wind did plenty of damage and the entire island was without power. Within a week most neighborhoods had power, but some streets went 12 days before power was restored. Landscape damage was widespread. Piles of storm debris would line most streets. Beach School would be closed for two weeks. Islanders would do what they do best, band together to see who needed help and provide that help. The stories of sacrifice, assistance and genuine caring for friends and strangers before, during and after Irma were amazing.

    Red Tide; Blue-Green Algae 2018

    In July 2018, a severe Red Tide bloom in the Gulf led to thousands of pounds of dead sea life washing up on Fort Myers Beach shores. Photo by M. Layfield.

    From late June through late September 2018, with record-setting Red Tide near-shore and Blue-Green Algae prevalent in the Caloosahatchee River, the poor water quality decimated our local economy, leading average citizens to get involved with the Clean Water Movement in greater numbers than ever before, especially with the election for a new Florida Governor on the ballot for that November.

    “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is fantastic water and 10 a total disaster, we are at a 7 or 8,” said Rae Ann Wessel, the former Natural Resources Policy Director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. “Recent samples in some locations indicate toxic levels 200 times over the recommended safety levels.” John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper, went lower: “Unfortunately, I say ’10!’ For those who monitor water quality conditions for a long time, this is historically as bad as they can remember, when you combine the Blue-Green Algae down the Caloosahatchee with the historic Red Tide bloom off the coast.” Rae Ann advised that all Southwest Floridians should “vote as if your life depended on it, as it just might! It is up to us to demand clean water, because we only get the government we vote for.”

    Ron DeSantis eked out a whisker-thin victory to become the new Governor and to date has kept his campaign promise to devote $2.5 billion for Clean Water initiatives. In a bold move, he replaced the entire nine-member South Florida Water Management District Board with experts committed to the environment, as well as founding the 5-person Blue-Green Algae Task Force, with one member being FGCU’s Dr. Michael Parsons. Major water quality projects due for completion in the coming years include final Herbert Hoover Dike renovations, along with the construction of the C-43, C-44, and Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoirs.

    Dr. Leroy Hommerding Murder – 2019

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    Dr. Leroy Hommerding. Photo provided.

    Dr. Leroy Hommerding, the long-time Director of the Fort Myers Beach Library, was the victim of a brutal murder by an allegedly mentally-ill area homeless man on January 20, 2019, in the doorway of the library that he worked so hard to make a reality and that he loved so much. The accused, Adam M. Soules, was followed by witnesses to the attack and arrested the same day by Lee County Sheriff’s deputies without incident. Charged with First Degree Murder, Soules remains in custody as his case proceeds through the courts.

    Dr. Hommerding was named Director of the Beach Library in 2000 following the retirement of Jayne Coles. He oversaw the purchase of land adjoining the property in 2002 and the design and construction of an addition to the Beach Library, which was completed in 2013. Leroy was a devoted volunteer with several community organizations including the Estero Island Historic Society and the Fort Myers Beach Kiwanis Club. The Fort Myers Beach community turned out in force for a memorial service held at the library for Dr. Hommerding. Cletus Poser was named Library Director in late January 2019.  A Memorial Garden at the library has been dedicated to Dr. Leroy’s memory. Dr. Hommerding once described a library, “Libraries are an enduring monument to people cooperating and sharing with each other, and are firmly rooted in our local communities.”

    COVID-19 – 2020

    A totally empty beach scene looking south from PierSide on March 20, 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic-related beach closures. Photo by M. Layfield.

    COVID-19 is the biggest story this year, whose full effects have yet to play out. The pandemic swept into the United States early in the year, with Florida declaring a Public Health Emergency on March 1 and a State of Emergency on March 9. Shoppers inexplicably began hoarding toilet paper, paper towels, rice, flour and soup. The Fort Myers Beach Town Council declared a Local State of Emergency on Friday, March 13, canceling the Shrimp Festival, due to begin the next day, and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 16. Later the Fourth of July parade and fireworks would be “postponed,” threatening to make 2020 the first year in decades without a single parade on the Island. Businesses and beaches were closed, then reopened with restrictions. Florida had a “Safer-at-Home” order in place for about a month, easing restrictions beginning in early May. A surge in COVID-19 cases in the state and county, beginning in mid-June continues into July. The Town Council approved a mask mandate on July 1, requiring people carry and use masks if they are unable to stay 6-feet away from others. Fort Myers Beach businesses have adapted and continue to offer opportunities to get out and enjoy yourself while social distancing.

     

    by Gary Mooney & Missy Layfield