Updated July 10, 2020 to add latest Margaritaville information.
Fort Myers Beach has several significant projects currently on the drawing board, under construction, or in litigation that – prior to the COVID-19 economic downturn – The Island Sand Paper planned to see through to their conclusions and share with readers. Now in our final issue, here is a brief recap of what’s happening with eight major projects and what their immediate future may hold.
Nearly 14 years after Hurricane Charley devastated downtown Fort Myers Beach on Friday the 13th of August 2004 and the ups and downs that followed – the Great Recession that plummeted property values; the failure of six previous developers; a 2016 Town Council election that basically revolved around this issue; the approval of the Fort Myers Beach Local Planning Agency (LPA); conflicting Town Staff reports; a unanimous first Council vote on April 10, 2018, and immeasurable debate, disagreement, dialog, public meetings and angst, the Fort Myers Beach Town Council unanimously approved the TPI/FMB project that would later be named Margaritaville – Fort Myers Beach, at the base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge on Monday, May 21, 2018! The plan Council approved includes 254 rooms, with 224 on the bay side of Estero Blvd. and 30 on the beach side, with a beach side waterpark, two restaurants, a ground level parking garage and related amenities.
The TPI/FMB development team engaged in an unprecedented level of outreach during the design, redesign and development of the project, speaking to multiple focus groups, both residential and business, meeting with local hoteliers, community organizations, industry consultants and anyone who asked.
Following the approval by Town Council in May 2018, two lawsuits by Island resident Chris Patton delayed the project. The sole remaining one, a Writ of Certiorari was denied in circuit court in September 2019, then appealed to the Second District Court of Appeals in October. Oral arguments were heard on June 9, 2020 and a denial of the appeal issued on July 8, 2020. Demolition and construction are expected to begin by the end of the year.
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
Businesses located in the resort area have moved or have plans to move prior to the start of construction. The Salty Crab Bar & Grill, is NOT in the resort footprint and will remain open in its current location next to Crescent Beach Family Park.
Meanwhile, two miles inland at the corner of Pine Ridge Rd and San Carlos Blvd, planning continues on 15 acres for Beaches Gateway Village that will include a six-story Homewood Suites hotel, additional Margaritaville resort parking and shuttle and workforce housing. The Lee County Board of County Commissioners approved the Beaches Gateway Plan December 2019.
reFRESH Fort Myers Beach Projects
Roughly divided into two parts: reFRESH Estero Blvd and reFRESH Fort Myers Beach Waterlines, this project is a full-on replacement of virtually all utility infrastructure along Estero Blvd: water lines, sewer lines, storm water drains, gas lines, cable lines and power lines. When that is completed in a segment, the road construction work that will replace the Estero Blvd road, add bike lanes and sidewalks can be done.
Work on Estero Blvd. began in the summer of 2015 from Crescent Street south. While there was water line work done in some neighborhoods before the project moved to Estero Blvd, most people noticed it when the barricades went up on Estero Blvd. Segments 1 and 2 are complete to Strandview Avenue, near Publix. Segments 3 and 4, from Publix to Albatross are expected to be done this fall. The Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC) at their June 16 meeting approved the final construction contract for the last two segments that will complete the work from Albatross to the southern end of Fort Myers Beach by the end of 2021. Those Segments 5 & 6 will begin this fall, to replace sanitary sewer lines and complete the Estero Boulevard improvements.
The main difference residents and visitors will notice about Segments 5 and 6 as opposed to the first four reconstructed roadway segments is that these will feature the more traditional crown in the center of the road that slopes stormwater down to drains at the curbs and gutters, as opposed to the inverted crown drainage that brings water to the center lane storm drain with brick pavers used up to this point. Construction crews can use the traditional crown style in Segments 5 & 6 because right of way there is from 80 to 100 feet wide, rather than the earlier segments where the 50-foot right of way made the inversion method necessary. These areas will feature one lane in each direction, a center turn lane; sidewalks and designated bicycle lanes in each direction; a greenspace buffer and four trolley stops. Construction is expected to move a bit faster without the need to construct the center lane drain.
Town Water & Stormwater
The Town’s waterline replacement program, reFRESH FMB Waterlines, is running far ahead of all other reFRESH elements, with almost all waterlines and pipes installed to the south end of the island along Estero Blvd., including all 10- and 16-inch pipes, though there is still some drainage work necessary by the curve near the Church of the Ascension. Crews are conducting pressure tests and chlorination, while waiting on the Florida EPA for their approval, to make large and small connections in cooperation with the Town’s Water Department and complete the Town’s Estero waterline project by the end of 2020. One of the few good things to come from the coronavirus pandemic and its corresponding shutdowns is that the light traffic allowed construction crews to work at a rapid pace. The waterlines project will eventually replace all existing waterlines on Fort Myers Beach.
Due to Water and Stormwater systems costs, Town Council commissioned a Water & Stormwater Rate Review that led it to authorize Fiscal Year 2021 Water & Stormwater Rate increases. Water rates will go up 7% next year, as well as 6% in FY2022, 3.5% in FY2023; and 3% in FY2024 & 25. Council approved monthly storm water rate hikes from the current $19.98 per Equivalent Residential Unit (ERU) to $25.98 in Fiscal Year 2021, $31.98 in FY2022, and $37.64 in FY2023 to pay all expenditures, including maintenance. On August 3, Council will vote on an Ordinance to automatically pass on any Lee County Water Rate increases to Town residents, as 60% of the water utility cost goes to purchase bulk water from Lee County.
South End Boardwalk
The owners of Texas Hold ‘Em LLC and Squeeze Me Inn LLC properties at 8150 & 8170 Estero Boulevard have sought permission to construct a dune walkover boardwalk adjacent to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area (CWA) from their properties to the beach for the past four years. As the process moved along, the owners received a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permit in 2016; a 2017 Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission permit; and in 2018 a DEP construction permit. In October 2019, the Town’s LPA approved the structure with conditions by a unanimous vote, though Town staff recommended against it, leaving only Council permission needed.
The prior Council took up the matter in November 2019 and voted 3 to 2 to deny them a Special Exception in the Environmentally Critical (EC) Zone to construct the dune walkover. The property owners appealed that decision, with the same Council presiding over the rehearing, with the result another 3 to 2 denial. The President of the nearby Castle Beach Club Condominium Association at 8300 Estero Boulevard informed the two property owners that they granted a public beach access on the west side of their property in 1992 “that is just a short walk from your site, so use it any time!”
Following the appeal vote, the property owners sought to take the issue before a non-binding outside mediator, but then opted against that. Since the February denial, Town Council now has three new members, including two former LPA members who voted in favor of the dune walkover. The Town has spent $225,000 to $250,000 in litigation costs to date, so the question now is will the current Council support the decisions of the previous body or vote to grant the Special Exception for the dune walkover boardwalk, to avoid further legal costs? Will they even get the chance to consider the question since the applicants have already had a hearing and rehearing in front of Council?
Bay Oaks Redevelopment
The Town’s ad valorem millage (tax) rate for Fiscal Year 2020 was increased from 0.87 to 0.95-mills, with the extra funds set aside for proposed improvements to the Bay Oaks Recreational Center, Bayside Park and Times Square. While the millage increase will help, other governmental funds and programs will be necessary to pay for these projects.
Bay Oaks is the most aggressive and expensive of the three projects, with Council considering basically an entirely new campus, including a potential building on the Estero Boulevard entry parcel, replacing the current gymnasium, new baseball and soccer fields, nature trail, amphitheater and specific amenities for the Beach Elementary School, such as an outdoor classroom. There will be an increase of 200 to 300 parking spaces. There has been early Council discussion over whether the redevelopment will occur all at one time or in phases. The Council recently authorized $47,810 for a 30% Design Plan, with Town staff estimating the cost of a total Bay Oaks redesign at $10 million, though there has yet to be any public input on the proposal.
Bayside Park Redevelopment
In a cautionary tale for Town Council in their upcoming Bay Oaks & Times Square redevelopment plans, the panel proceeded with the 30% design plan for Bayside Park in the downtown area that included a three-story building adjacent to Nervous Nellie’s Waterfront Eatery that would have Mooring Field amenities such as showers and laundry facilities, in addition to public restrooms and a rooftop observation deck overlooking Estero Bay.
Several Council members voiced concern over the building, it’s location and whether the public park in such a prominent location should be used for Mooring Field amenities. After the Sand Paper published information on the design plan and renderings presented only to an advisory group, a group of citizens formed “Save Bayside Park” and mobilized resistance to the project, which prior to council’s June 15 meeting, had not seen any public input. After a dozen people spoke against the concept at that meeting, with no one in support, Council agreed to halt any further immediate work on the proposal until it could gain additional community input, with the design consultants shifting their focus to the Bay Oaks Recreational Center project.
Times Square Redevelopment
Of the three potential redevelopment concepts, Council has spent the least amount of discussion on Times Square, with initial conversations around new walkway materials, restaurant shade louvers and a sprinkler system, performance stage and enhanced beach views, along with whether the renovation plan should include the signature clock or if it should relocate that to another spot elsewhere in the Town. No consensus was reached about the clock or the square.
Big Carlos Pass Bridge
In late December 2018, the BoCC by a 4 to 1 vote authorized a new 60-foot-high Big Carlos Pass Fixed Span Bridge replacement for 2021. The current 24-foot-high drawbridge, built in 1965 and now 55 years old, has already exceeded its 50-year usefulness projection. The dissenting vote was cast by the late Larry Kiker whose District 3 includes the Big Carlos Pass Bridge, citing neighbor preferences for and proclamations from Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach for the 24-foot-high option.
The BoCC chose from three alternatives: a ‘No Build Option’ to extend the current bridge for another 20 years at an expensive price; a 24-foot-high drawbridge similar to the existing one; and the 60-foot fixed span on the Gulf of Mexico side of the current bridge. The 24-foot-high replacement would cost $60.7 million in initial capital investment, versus $48.1 million for the 60-foot bridge. Over its expected 75-year lifespan, maintenance costs on the 24-foot-high drawbridge at 2% inflation is $34.2 million compared to $11.4 million for the fixed bridge, and at 4% inflation, those increase to $99.7 million versus $34 million, making the 24-foot option much more expensive than the 60-foot option.
A public hearing with the Lee County DOT was planned for March 19, 2020 at Bay Oaks Recreational Center, but Town Council had closed Bay Oaks at that point due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No new date has been announced.