Steele & Molnar Stir Up Stormwater
With hindsight, it is now obvious the 2016 Town Council election came down to one issue – Downtown Fort Myers Beach redevelopment; if election déjà vu occurs all over again in 2017, most feel that this year that one issue will be stormwater. To provide clarification, we met with Interim Town Manager James Steele and reFRESH Estero Boulevard spokesperson Kaye Molnar, of Cella Molnar & Associates to discuss it. “Stormwater is complicated,” Kaye emphasizes “and there is a lot to understand!”
A stormwater system manages rainfall runoff. In natural areas, rainwater flows from fields to streams and rivers into larger waterways, like the Back Bay or Gulf of Mexico. Development, however, can alter these flows and cause flooding and pollution. Before Florida underwent its massive population growth, wetlands, swamps and marshes provided stormwater control by slowing storm surges, absorbing water and filtering out nutrients and sediment.
Development filled in much of these drainage areas, causing stormwater to lose its natural outlets, resulting in flooding as well as pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, motor oil and other chemicals from lawns, sidewalks, parking lots and roads. This led to man-made systems attempting to mimic nature, including basins, swales, and dry and wet retention.
What does Council’s decision not to fund the remainder of the 30% Stormwater design plan mean to the ongoing reFRESH Estero Boulevard projects?
Jim Steele said that “Segment 1 up to Donora Boulevard is essentially complete, and we are working on Segment 2 now, installing force mains from roughly the Red Coconut RV Park south to just short of Publix Supermarket. There will be eight shared Town & Lee County outfalls in Segment 2 that will connect to the inverted Estero Boulevard middle-lane drain, and these should all proceed.” Force mains move water under pressure from pumps or compressors when gravity flow is insufficient to transport runoff through a gravity line; outfalls are the place where a drain empties into a bay, lake, gulf or other waterway.
“Council authorized outfall design and engineering through its Interlocal Agreement with Lee County,” Jim continues. “It, however, has yet to approve construction contracts to do the outfalls or stormwater on Estero Boulevard or any sidestreets. We were to discuss costs for the first four outfalls at the January 23 council meeting but we pulled it so we could take it to a special Workshop to better understand the issue, and this will be Friday, February 17, in Town Hall at 9 a.m.” At this week’s council meeting the time was changed to 1 p.m. due to a schedule conflict.
As for the 30% design plan, “Without it for Segments 3 through 6 planning, we will not know which streets require swales, outfalls or restoration,” Steele explained. Swales are manmade or natural areas shaped to allow water to be quickly absorbed into the ground or to flow into other waterways during and immediately after a storm, but are typically dry all other times, and are much less expensive. “We can work with Lee County to say ‘we can use swales here but this street is bad so install drainage pipes and outfalls there.’”
Molnar added, “I think we will answer a lot of questions following the Workshop. The public will receive relevant information, as the Town and County will make their presentations to tie the whole thing together, including potential funding options and engineering and construction timeframes.”
Will the 30% design decision cause the reFRESH Estero Boulevard project to halt at some point, and will we need to re-dig it to continue future stormwater work?
“If we don’t construct outfalls past Segment 2, then Lee County cannot complete drainage for the remainder of Estero Boulevard and has a real problem,” Steele explained. “Does it redesign the roadway? Because without outfalls you cannot continue the center drain inverted style; they would most likely re-engineer it into a traditional elevated crown with water to the curb. That, however, requires relocating utility lines that can add a year or two to the project, along with the additional expense. We must continue waterline replacement to the south end of the island as a necessary safety measure, as we may not have enough water pressure there to handle a large fire.”
Steele is not sure if Lee County will continue Estero Boulevard improvements without the Town, “because if we stop, there will be no force mains in place once it completes the road. If the Town decides at some future time to complete stormwater, it must tear up Estero Boulevard at least one more time, so it is critical the Town and County continue this massive project together, because of the money, time and heartache we will save by bulldozing up the road only once versus two or three times.”
Since Fort Myers Beach already approved Segment 2 that will continue through roughly August 2018, “work will most likely continue uninterrupted until then,” believes Steele. “As such, the Town has a little bit of wiggle room but not much, as construction requires months of advance work to acquire permits, line up crews and equipment, and seek funds from grants and the Florida State Revolving Fund loans.”
“The shared outfalls for Estero Boulevard are critical,” Molnar agreed. “If we cannot proceed with stormwater, it becomes very difficult to continue to work together, and Lee County will most likely need to design a new plan, and that could delay the entire project. It will be tough and nowhere as efficient if Lee County proceeds alone while leaving the Town behind.”
Molnar says that with Segment 1 continuing through March, the current Segment 2 construction, and the recent bid opening for design work for Segments 3 through 6, “work will proceed into the immediate future, with some cushion to figure this out, but soon we need some type of solution or resolution over how to continue. Hopefully the Workshop will provide those answers.”
Why the $20.3 million plan?
“This figure comes from the projection for 19 outfalls to cover the remainder of the island, not counting the completed Segment 1 or the north end already done by the Town,” Steele relates, “but that is a ballpark figure; the Town needs the 30% design to nail down the exact cost, because that will determine outfalls versus swales, as swales are much cheaper than pipe in the ground.”
The original concept had an outfall on every street “and we don’t need that,” Jim continued, “because we can use swales in many parts of the island. The 30% plan will also identity the condition of our current stormdrains, and if we can restore them to peak efficiency with proper maintenance. It will provide us with an excellent idea of where to install the Town-only outfalls, as well as those shared with Lee County.”
The worst-case cost scenario of this plan to the typical homeowner’s monthly stormwater fee is just a $2 increase, from $19.98 per-month to a maximum of $21.98 monthly, Jim relates, “and the Town at its Workshop will explore additional funding options that may not require any increase. We must, however, complete the 30% stormwater design, as all potential grant options and the State Revolving Fund require that with the application.”
What is the bare-minimum stormwater improvement that will still help the Town?
Steele says that “probably the very least we can do and still receive a benefit to everyone is to work with Lee County to complete the 19 shared outfalls down Estero Boulevard, because without those, our community’s main road will still flood. But again, we need the 30% plan because that will determine for sure if nineteen is the correct amount, as well as their best locations. If we do at least that, Estero Boulevard will be mostly dry, but we will still have flooded side streets.”
Are we too far along to stop now and place this before voters as a referendum?
“My understanding is that a referendum is not possible until Spring 2018 at the earliest,” Steele says, “so to not do anything for a year, without the 30% plan, then even completing Segment 2 becomes an issue – there will be no joint outfalls so Estero Boulevard will not have sewer and water lines, meaning Lee County will most likely just pave over the road with no drainage that will result in continued flooding. I hope that does not happen – if we wait a year to begin again, infrastructure costs usually increase.”
Any long-term delay runs the risk in incurring a real danger of outside intervention, Steele warned: “Right now the Town basically controls its own project, but if in the near future, the State or Federal Environmental Protection Agency tests the Back Bay and it does not meet standards, they will mandate that Fort Myers Beach treat its stormwater. We will have no choice, with less local control, and a more difficult time in acquiring grants because we will be competing against other mandated communities for a smaller piece of the funding pie.”
Molnar thinks it is too easy to get lost in the dollars and cents while missing out on the quality-of-life enhancements produced by ReFRESH Estero Boulevard. “Don’t get me wrong – this is expensive, but now that Segment 1 is almost done, people are starting to appreciate it. I had a complaint the other day about a fire truck going too fast down the middle lane, because traffic was able to pull into the north and south lanes to give it a clear road. Who would have ever thought we would have complaints about any vehicle in the heart of season being able to drive down Estero too fast! Residents and guests rave about the new 9-foot-wide sidewalks, many at The Library Friends meeting were stunned when they learned the beautiful photograph of the completed project was actually Segment 1 here, and everyone looks forward to the dedicated bike lanes. Now seems like a poor time to risk stopping this progress in its tracks.”
What do you anticipate from the February 17 Stormwater Workshop?
“Glad you asked,” exclaimed Steele! “I hope we clarify the exact location and installation of the eight shared outfalls with Lee County as well as the sites for the Town-only outfalls. We will examine what streets require outfalls, which can use swales, and what existing stormdrains we can restore for the balance of the island, to define these options within the $20.3-million estimate. Town and Lee County staffs will make these presentations, I anticipate a lot of questions, and hope our team will have the answers.”
To hear these questions and answers, attend the special Town of Fort Myers Beach Council Stormwater Workshop on Friday, February 17, at Council chambers in Town Hall, or watch City Government Channel 98, at 1 p.m.
In the Stormwater article in the Feb 10, 2017 Island Sand Paper, some errors were made. To clarify: The Town is responsible for the water line replacement on Estero Blvd and side streets and the stormwater on side streets. Stormwater outfalls will only operate with gravity. The FMB Town Council has not approved any additional stormwater work beyond Segment 1.
Force mains are used for wastewater. Lee County is responsible for wastewater improvements (force mains) and Estero Blvd reconstruction.