As the Town and County prepare to begin the second segment of the waterline replacement project and Estero Boulevard reconstruction, long-dormant issues over where the lines delineating what belongs to the county and what belongs to private property owners have begun to resurface – particularly in the area around the Red Coconut RV Park and the Gulfview Shops. And, like so many controversial issues in our small town, the line between rumor and fact begins to appear as blurry as the one some claim defines the Rights of Way (ROW). This week, we met with some of the players involved to give our readers an accurate description of what is going on.
“This road project is without a doubt the most complicated road project this county has ever done,” County Manager Roger Desjarlais said at a Beach Chamber of Commerce luncheon last week. It’s not hard to understand why – Estero Boulevard is a narrow, two-lane road paved for the first time in 1950 down a narrow island where some of the property surveys date back to the early 1900’s. Over the years, encroachments into the County (and Town) ROW have become the norm, and figuring out who owns what and where the new road should go has become the job of the county’s engineers – many of who have spent years on this project.
Eight years ago, in 2008, Lee County began working on ROW study for the entire length of the boulevard in preparation for the reconstruction project. “The survey work began approximately 15 months ago and has resulted in a very comprehensive and thorough analysis of County land records, field verification, control survey and monumentation,” said former Town Public Works Director Cathie Lewis in a memo dated June 4, 2010, to then-Town Manager Terry Stewart.
The study, available on the Town’s website at fortmyersbeachfl.gov under the ‘Doing Business’ tab, shows that the ROW for Estero Boulevard is 50 feet wide until it jigs quite dramatically to the right at Red Coconut’s Gulfside property line to 65 feet wide. Though property lines aren’t shown – only ROW – a close look at the building details for Red Coconut’s laundry/bathroom facilities indicate that it lies between 5.4 and 6.1 feet seaward of the ROW line. On the County’s website, the lines depicted in the study are laid over actual pictures of the properties, and in those pictures it appears the ROW line is much closer to Red Coconut’s laundry/bathroom building. Still another graphic, this one part of the preliminary designs for Estero Boulevard that were presented at a public workshop in February of 2013, shows Estero opening up to 65 feet just beyond Gulfview Shops.
Kaye Molnar, of Cella Molnar & Associates – the public relations firm hired by both the Town and the County – told us that the county is busy researching all issues related to the Estero Boulevard ROW, including Red Coconut and a cottage in the 3300 block whose front porch appears to be in the ROW – and that final decisions are nowhere near being made.
“What people need to understand is that the contractor is only clearing the ROW when they need to do it, and in the case of this section of Estero, that will likely be months from now,” she said. “There are even sections of segment one (Crescent to Lovers Lane) that are just now being cleared because it wasn’t necessary (before). And the contractors are expediting the underground work only – the rest of the project’s plans are only 60% complete and the roadway still needs to go out to bid. Many final decisions have not been made. ”
The second phase of the Town’s waterline project will begin at Lover’s Lane while the 2nd segment of the County’s project will start at Washington Street. According to Kaye, this has nothing to do with any issues with Red Coconut but rather due to the fact that the two projects cannot be done at the same time at the same location – or people would have no way to drive down Estero.
“Both projects require the demolition of a different side of the road – for the Town’s waterline project it is the beach side and for the county it’s the bay side,” she said. “Since the water main has to be continuous, the contractors – working together – decided that project would be first and the county will start installing new sanitary sewer lines down by Washington. Both contractors will then work south towards Madera, with the plan being that the county will return to the area between Lovers Lane and Washington when everything else is finished.”
That will likely be sometime in April. In the meantime, Kaye told us, County staff is researching areas – like Red Coconut and the aforementioned cottage – to see how the properties came to be in the ROW.
At last Thursday’s Chamber luncheon, Desjarlais explained the county’s policy in regards to ROW:
“As with any road project, our standard operating procedure is to identify right of way, identify encroachments, and work with affected property owners to eliminate encroachments,” he said. “But at the end of the day we have a responsibility to protect the public right of way. We have a road to build and we own the right of way; we are obligated to treat all parties fairly and equally. This is what the county did in phase one and this is what staff is doing in phase two.”
Commissioner Larry Kiker also spoke at that luncheon, and Sand Paper Publisher Bob Layfield asked him to expand upon issues regarding the ROW and Red Coconut.
“This is one of those little rumors that people grab ahold of and bite into like they’re a pit bull,” he said. “We’re skipping that portion – we also skipped the first portion down by the bridge. Why? Because we’re not ready to do something with that yet.”
Kiker reiterated comments made by Desjarlais and said there would be no trading of land related to the ROW.
“We have a job to do, we have to put a road in, we have engineers who go in and design and that is the design and that’s what we build,” he said. “End of story. There is no negotiating, there is no trading – it’s a matter of ‘we have a road to build’. There’s going to be some issues, and we’re going to have them all down the road because we have people utilizing ROW that they don’t own. If there’s a way we can work with them, we do, but by and large, that road is coming through.”
Confirming what Molnar told us, Kiker said the county is going to skip the section between Lovers Lane and Washington because the Town’s waterline project needs to be continuous.
“These folks (doing the waterline replacement project) also have another job in that once they get in front of us, they need to stay in front of us,” he said. “Why do we want to skip it? The ROW goes to 65 feet, that’s a very complicated area and may require us to take the road down to one lane. If we start now, we’ll be down to one lane during season – anybody want that?”
When Kiker was asked if there is an issue with where the county has determined the ROW to be along the Red Coconut property, he replied in the affirmative.
“There is, and the owner there is challenging it and they’re welcome to do so,” he told the group of Chamber members.
Kiker also said that while there is no “land swap” under consideration, the county and Town have been talking for years about alternatives to the trolley system on the island.
“Per any relationship of a Trolley Stop vs. ROW, the statement is not accurate,” Kiker said.
Kiker went on to say that the BoCC is looking at improving public transportation across the county as ridership is down significantly – something that cost the county $11 million last year in subsidies.
“Is there a chance that we can change the way we provide transportation? That means we have to start thinking differently, and that was a conversation we had years ago,” he said. “One idea is we have these big busses that come through during season that no one wants to ride because they sit in traffic. What happens if we do small transportation units and send them up and down the middle of the road? And maybe the small units could stop at Red Coconut because it’s not necessary to go down the whole island. If that happens, we’d need a place to turn around and switch to big busses again. But that’s a discussion only at this point and one of many as one of the commission’s major issues this year is to look at transportation across the county.”
Red Coconut owner Fran Myers told us that she wants to cooperate but says where the ROW line actually is located is confusing. She also told us that she knows nothing of any land swap involving the Gulfview Shops (property she and her husband, Tom, own) or LeeTran.
“I want the Town to have sidewalks and bike paths, and I want to be a good neighbor,” she said. “But there is a disagreement as to where the ROW line actually is.”
Fran told us that her attorneys started looking into the issue when the ROW study first came out in 2008 and they are currently doing research to determine where they think the line should go, something she says may likely be different from what the county says.
“They (attorneys) are going way back,” she said. “We’ve already proven the park was here in 1925.”
The bottom line, Kiker said, is that there are issues with this road project – as there are with every project – and they will be resolved.
“We had ROW issues with the first segment, too, and they were worked out,” he said. “There are a lot of properties right on the line. But just because the ROW line is there doesn’t mean the road has to follow it exactly because the ROW isn’t a straight line – and the road has to follow a straight line – that’s the whole point of engineering and design.”
Keri Hendry Weeg