On Wednesday morning, the Lee County Hearing Examiner listened to the third day of testimony on the proposed Bay Harbour development on San Carlos Island. The first two days of the hearing – on April 28th and May 5th – consisted mostly of testimony from the developer, so Wednesday’s hearing was scheduled in order to allow the public the opportunity to speak. After the developer was given a chance to rebut some of the comments that were made, the Hearing Examiner scheduled one more day – Friday, June 17 – so that county staff could look into possible conditions that the Examiner could attach to an approval, should she decide to grant one. No more public comment will be taken, however, as that portion of the hearing is now closed.
The community first heard about the development last year, when over a hundred San Carlos Island residents packed the meeting hall at the Moose Lodge on November 28th to hear plans to develop the old Compass Rose Marina property into a new mixed use residential space with a marina and a 14-story condominium building, complete with a parking garage.
The property, located at the corner of Oak and Main Street, was the home of Compass Rose Marina for many years until Hurricane Charley destroyed it in 2004. An attempt to rebuild failed when the economy crashed, leaving the area an eyesore covered with rusted foundations and weeds and surrounded by a chain link fence.
The 8-parcel, 7.58-acre site was purchased for $2.1 million in June 2015 by Southern Comfort Storage, LLC, who decided to create a mixed-use space rather than simply rebuild the marina. The proposed ‘Bay Harbour Marina Village’ is a 14-story residential building with 113 rental units, 35 of which will be ‘workforce’ or ‘moderate income’ housing (meaning they will rent for between $1,500 and $2,000/month), a 286-space boat barn, 29 wet slips that will be open to the public and an indoor/outdoor parking garage with 520 spaces that will also be open to the public, plus four two-story residential townhouses that will be sold. The plan also calls for a number of amenities that will be located on the roofs of the buildings: a pool, restaurant, garden and children’s play area.
With a height of 175 feet, the condo building will be taller than both the Matanzas Pass Bridge and the Diversified Yacht building, but shorter than another proposed and approved San Carlos Island development, Ebb Tide, whose tallest building would reach a height of 230 feet. The developers said at the November meeting that the project would beautify a neighborhood eyesore and that they would make improvements on Main Street to help alleviate the traffic.
Last month, the Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC) voted to amend Lee’s Land Development Code (LDC) to allow developers to request bonus density for workforce housing on barrier islands in unincorporated Lee County – something that will not effect Fort Myers Beach or Sanibel as they are both incorporated towns – but would allow the Bay Harbor developers to have more units should the zoning request be granted. In the case of Bay Harbour, the developer has applied for a comprehensive plan amendment and for a zoning hearing, which will be done concurrently before the Board of Lee County Commissioners (BoCC). Bay Harbour’s Comp Plan amendment was denied by Lee’s Local Planning Agency (LPA) in December of last year and has yet to go before the BoCC. Should they be granted the amendment, they will be able to build 75 units. Should they get the amendment plus the bonus density, they can build 113 units. The comp plan amendment is critical to the project moving forward even if the developer’s zoning request is approved.
Similar to the first two days of the hearing, on Wednesday it was clear that there were two diametrically opposed viewpoints as to the future of San Carlos Island – with Bay Harbour Attorney Russell Schropp saying that the island need no longer be dedicated to the use of the shrimping industry that has called it home for over 50 years, and those whose families have lived on the island for generations saying they wanted the little fishing village they’d grown up in to remain.
The day began with testimony from Ebb Tide architect Joe McHarris, who spent the better part of an hour and a half explaining why ‘his’ project (Ebb Tide – which has been delayed until financing is secured) is a better fit for the community than Bay Harbour’s, urging denial of the zoning request.
“When we came before the county for our comp plan amendment and zoning request (in 2012 for zoning and 2009 for the comp plan) we were not allowed to calculate any space on the top of our towers as ‘green space’,” he said. “I’m very concerned that Bay Harbour is being allowed to do so.”
McHarris also pointed to the fact that Ebb Tide’s development will replace 271 residential units with 271 residential units, therefore not adding a single unit to an area located in a Coastal High Hazard Area.
“The property that Bay Harbour wants to develop has zero residential units now, so they will be adding 113,” he said. “Plus it’s designed badly – there are no open spaces or view corridor elements. When we submitted our proposal, we had to define – with laser precision – all of our design standards. Things like terracing, increased setbacks, preserving the waterfront.”
On the topic of preserving the waterfront, McHarris emphasized the importance of keeping industrial waterfront use, saying it’s rare these days and that Ebb Tide has room for a research facility and a shrimp processing plant.
“We also had to show how people would get to and from our development – things like water taxis and shuttles to and from the airport – our project creates its own destination,” he said. “Bay Harbour makes no such assurances. The bottom line is, if you have to put your open space on top of a building, then it’s too big.”
During cross-examination, Bay Harbour Attorney Schropp reminded McHarris that while Ebb Tide may have zero increase in density in relation to residential units, the project does plan for 450 hotel units, 75,000 square feet of conference rooms, an additional 135,000 square feet of retail and space for 60 live-aboard boats.
“Also, your development has a maximum height of 230 feet? Ours tops off at 175 feet,” Russell said.
After a short break, the public got the opportunity to speak in what turned out to be a pretty much evenly divided debate, though one resident pointed out that many of the seasonal residents who’d planned on speaking at the original hearing date on April 28th had already left for the summer.
First was Joseph Villers, a former shrimper and owner of Villers Seafood who spoke in favor of the project.
“I grew up on San Carlos Island, and my daddy was a shrimper,” he said. “I became a shrimper too and got very political within the industry. While I love Joanne Semmer (who spoke against the project on May 5th), the way of life she talks about happened 35 years ago. The shrimping industry began in the 50’s, peaked in the 70’s and 80’s and has been declining ever since. That’s why 10 years ago I decided to sell my land to the Key West Express. Everyone said things against me then, but I bet no one thinks those things now. San Carlos Island is in need of an upgrade – let’s move forward.”
Lowell Weaver and other residents of Oak Street – directly across the canal from the proposed development – said the project is too big, especially for that area of the island.
“If this is built, the sun will set at 2pm at my house,” Weaver quipped. Other residents whose families have lived on the island for generations agreed that some change is needed but the Bay Harbour project is too much.
Attorney John Wicker spoke on behalf of 51 residents and 17 business owners – including two in the shrimping industry – saying all have written letters of support for the Bay Harbour project. Though the Hearing Examiner told him she wasn’t sure if his reading the letters into the record would qualify the authors to speak when the zoning request goes before the county commissioners, he read them anyway.
“If businesses like the former Channel Mark had adequate parking, they might be okay,” said the letter from Dennis Henderson, owner of Trico. “Most residents of SCI are seasonal, to get more year-rounders would be great, plus the need for affordable housing is huge.”
Finally, Emily Lane resident Charlie Whitehead – opposed to the project since the beginning – asked why people weren’t being allowed to send their comments on the comprehensive plan amendment to the county commissioners.
“They are being told the language is so close to that of the zoning request that it would be considered ‘ex parte’ communication – without notice to the other party (applicant),” he said. “That’s a violation of my constitutional rights.”
The last person to speak was Ralf Brookes, an attorney represents those opposed to the project. He promised to challenge the comprehensive plan amendment Bay Harbour is seeking almost simultaneously with the zoning change.
“I represent another community where the residents challenged the legality of a density increase in a comprehensive plan amendment that was also a concurrent situation,” Brookes said. “There, like Bay Harbour, the zoning request was heard before the amendment, which was challenged.”
Outside the meeting, we spoke with Bill Semmer, owner of Semmer Electric. We asked him why his family is opposed to the Bay Harbour project when they spoke in favor of Ebb Tide.
“It’s too big!” he said. “Plus if all those people in those residential units look down on my business and say they don’t like it, we’ll have to go. That kind of thing has happened before when you put residential next to industrial.”
Keri Hendry Weeg