Deaths, Politics, Water on List
2019 was another historic year for Fort Myers Beach! It was 12 months full of good and bad news, happy occasions and tragic occurrences, momentous events and frustrating developments, and The Island Sand Paper was there to cover it all. Below is one man’s opinion of the island’s Top Ten Stories, from #10 to #1!
#10: Dorian Close Call
Sometimes the best stories are the ones you don’t have to write! Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 Monster with 185-mile-per-hour winds and heavy rains, seemed to have Fort Myers Beach in its crosshairs leading up to the Labor Day Holiday Weekend, having already decimated the Bahamas. Then, mysteriously and miraculously, it spared us by suddenly stalling out over the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 150 miles from Fort Myers Beach, before making an agonizingly slow turn north. The call was close enough, however, that many people and businesses initiated hurricane prep measures, to be on the safe side.
#9: The Roar Offshore!
After an absence of over a decade, Powerboat Racing returned to FMB, with The Roar Offshore hosting signature events from Thursday, October 10, through Race Day on Saturday, October 12, bringing tens of thousands of race fans to the island right in the middle of what is traditionally one of the slowest business and visitation times of the entire year. The five-mile course ran from roughly the Best Western Plus Beach Resort near the north end of Fort Myers Beach to Junkanoo On The Beach Restaurant, with the Start/Finish line at the DiamondHead Resort. It featured 8 turns, with one extremely rare left-hand turn.
Events included the Race Village & Dry Pits, the Race Boat Parade on Thursday evening over the Matanzas Pass Bridge, followed by the Roar Offshore Street Party in Downtown FMB. Friday was Time Trials, and Saturday was Race Day, featuring four races in various classifications, with boats reaching 160 mph! CBS Sports rebroadcast the races the following Sunday, bringing national attention to Fort Myers Beach.
#8: Turtle Time Record Season
“This was a ‘Holy Moly’ year,” raved Eve Haverfield, who established the non-profit “Turtle Time, Inc.,” in 1989 to benefit nesting marine turtles on Big Hickory Island as well as Bonita Beach, Bunche Beach and Fort Myers Beach. “We not only enjoyed a wonderful turtle nesting season, we had a record-breaking one!”
Turtle Time set new nesting numbers on Fort Myers Beach and Bonita Beach, as well as a record regional total for its four nesting areas. “The previous Fort Myers Beach mark was from 2017 with 99 nests,” Eve offered, “and this year we had 112. Our volunteers were overjoyed on July 14 when we passed 100 for the first time. Bonita Beach’s former high was from 2017 with 206 and this year we had 238. All-together, our previous total record was from 2017 with 327 and this year we had 367 nests. Those are incredible numbers!” Up to this season, Fort Myers Beach was the exclusive domain of Loggerhead turtles, but Turtle Time discovered a Green turtle nest on our shore for the first time! Overall, Turtle Time counted 35,902 eggs that equated to roughly 28,000 hatchlings for an outstanding success rate of 81%.
Eve reminded, however, that with good comes bad. “The principle reason for turtle disorientations remains light that draws hatchlings away from the Gulf toward that source and their likely demise. Unfortunately, we had 15 total disorientations and sadly 13 of those occurred on Fort Myers Beach. No one expects anyone to sacrifice personal safety for the benefit of sea turtles, but there are lighting options approved by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission that are a true technological boon.”
#7: Death of Larry Kiker
Former Fort Myers Beach Mayor Larry Kiker passed away after a brief battle with cancer on April 23, while serving as the District 3 Commissioner for Lee County, the jurisdiction that includes Estero Island. Kiker, age 67, served on Town Council for 5-1/2 years, starting in March 2007, including four years as Mayor, until his election to the Lee County Board of Commissioners in November 2012.
During his time as Mayor, Kiker led a Town Council that took on several major projects with minimal community resistance, including the North Estero Boulevard construction, Newton Beach Park and Mound House site completions, north island beach renourishment, Lee County’s purchase of the Seafarer Mall property, the Town taking ownership of the Bay Oaks Recreational Center, and establishing the Public Safety Task Force after several Estero Boulevard crosswalk accidents resulted in deaths.
Kiker’s signature accomplishment, however, for which most islanders will remember him, is the Estero Boulevard renovation. As Mayor, he pushed Lee County to fund the early stages of the project so it aligned with the Town’s waterline replacement project. As County Commissioner, he led the effort to fund the entire program, due for completion in 2021.
Known for his soft spot for island children, he and his wife Paula launched the annual Putt & Pub Crawl in 2011 to benefit Fort Myers Beach kids and community charities. As Commissioner, he was instrumental in constructing the Beach Park & Ride and acquiring the popular seasonal trams to decrease FMB traffic. In June, his fellow County Commissioners named in his memory the nearly 4,000-acre Edison Farm parcel the “Larry Kiker Preserve.”
#6: EITA PAC & Demise
Be forewarned that #6 through #4 go hand-in-hand-in-hand!
The Estero Island Taxpayers Association (EITA) formed in 2016 to represent all property taxpayers and businesses with a physical presence on Estero Island at the town, county, state and federal levels to ensure an equitable voice in government policy decisions. In 2018, the EITA quietly established the Political Action Committee (PAC), “The Friends of FMB.”
In the weeks leading up to the March 5 Town Council election, where Council member and former FMB Mayor Dennis Boback was up for re-election, the EITA PAC mailed out and posted online several advertisements against Boback’s re-election for his role the previous year in “Whalegate” conversations recorded at “The Whale” with then Mayor Tracey Gore and Town resident Christine Patton, who is suing the Town to halt construction of the proposed Margaritaville FMB Resort.
Though voters crushed Boback at the polls, the backlash against the EITA was immediate, with many local residents displaying great disdain that a small community like Fort Myers Beach would organize a PAC in either support for or against island political candidates, especially with the “Friends of FMB” stance that it might garner money from outside Fort Myers Beach and Florida. Beverley Milligan, who was Executive Director of both, immediately resigned, prior to the election. With Milligan not only went the PAC, but the EITA, as the group has not held another public meeting since.
#5: New Contract for Roger Hernstadt
With the community backlash against the EITA and its PAC still fresh, the outgoing Town Council proved they could play ‘Big City Back Room Politics’ with the best of them, when on March 4, the day before Election Day, three of its members, with Council Member Bruce Butcher not even at the session, orchestrated a controversial pay raise and contract extension for Town Manager Roger Hernstadt, under the guise of his annual Performance Evaluation.
Council member Joanne Shamp initiated the discussion to amend his Employment Contract, with a pay increase to $180,000 annually for the next five years, with future Councils having the option to issue bonuses, and agreed to his request to work remotely for 15 days annually from June 1 to July 15. The main caveat, however, was removing his decreasing severance pay over the life of the contract were he to be terminated without cause, resulting in job security for Hernstadt or a huge bill for Town taxpayers!
Then Council member Anita Cereceda adamantly opposed this action, saying the meeting’s stated objective was for Council “to provide their Performance Evaluations and not a contract renegotiation. People will be highly critical of us if we change his contract on the eve of an election, so I am not comfortable with this, especially with Bruce not here.” Shamp, however, viewed the Town Manager’s initial contract, penned in April 2017, “as a probationary period, to see if we wanted him to stay, but he earned these terms. This Council is the one to do this, because we are the five who worked with him.”
“I agree,” said outgoing Mayor Gore, who was not running for re-election the next day. “We’ve been dating long enough; it is time to marry this guy!” “I will not approve,” responded Cereceda. “This process makes me feel heebie-jeebie.” Boback confirmed that Shamp proposed an $18,000 increase, with Gore counter-proposing a 5% raise to $170,870 “as Roger is amazing and still does not make enough!” The Motion passed 3 to 1, with Cereceda Against.
#4: Town Council Election
The March 5 election produced two new Town Council members, with former FMB Mayor Ray Murphy and former Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros winning the two seats out of four candidates. Gore did not seek a second term, but Boback took an old-fashioned drubbing! He easily finished in last place, drawing just 12% of the vote, or less than one out of every eight people who cast ballots. The two previous Councils conducted business in highly emotional and often agitated ways, but the panel of Butcher, Cereceda, Hosafros, Murphy, and Shamp restored calm and civility to local governance, with Cereceda, the Town’s first Mayor in 1995, becoming its first three-time Mayor.
#3: Margaritaville FMB Resort
TPI Hospitality of Minnesota, under current FMB resident Tom Torgerson, over four years ago first proposed what is now known as the Margaritaville FMB Resort for the area near the Estero Island base of the Matanzas Pass Bridge, in an area Hurricane Charley devastated in August 2004 and almost unbelievably remains undeveloped more than 15 years later. Under the moniker, “TPI-FMB,” its original design led to community opposition, multiple meetings attended by hundreds of residents, a substantial plan revision, more meetings attended by hundreds more, two Town Council sessions that eventually led to unanimous approvals, then two lawsuits – one dropped; the other still under appeal – that delays construction.
TPI-FMB received its first official public hearing when the Town’s Local Planning Agency on February 13, 2018, approved it by a 5 – 2 vote, moving it to the previous Council that included Gore and Boback, along with Butcher, Cereceda, and Shamp for the final determination. That Council hosted two public meetings and unanimously approved it with two separate unanimous votes, first on April 10, 2018, then again six weeks later. Following Town approval, TPI-FMB announced its branding and marketing partnership with The Margaritaville Resorts.
Following the two Council unanimous votes, Patton, who would soon become news herself from “Whalegate,” with plenty of support from Robert Conidaris of the Lani Kai Island Resort, filed two lawsuits to halt construction. On June 30, 2019, Patton voluntarily dropped her Civil Action against the Town, then on September 11, Judge Alane C. Laboda denied her Writ of Certiorari. Patton, however, filed a last-minute appeal on October 10, further clouding the start of Margaritaville FMB. A Writ of Certiorari is a court process that seeks a judicial review of a decision from a lower court or administrative agency; in this case, claiming the Town did not have the right to approve Margaritaville FMB.
Interestingly, TPI Hospitality proposed a second, off-island companion resort called Beaches Gateway Village (BGV), at San Carlos Boulevard and Pine Ridge Road, just two miles from the Margaritaville site, but under Lee County jurisdiction and not the Town. The Lee County Hearing Examiner held a hearing on September 25, and though roughly 15 neighbors attended, with three speaking, none were against BGV. At the Lee County Board of County Commissioners Comp Plan Amendment & Zoning Hearing on Wednesday, December 18, the Commissioners took just five minutes to unanimously approve the six-story, 133-suite Homewood Suites hotel, including a 75-space parking lot for Margaritaville FMB overflow.
#2: Water Quality
Although FMB’s environment and economy escaped the twin 2018 disasters of Blue-Green Algae and Red Tide, water quality remained our overwhelming 2019 issue. From Governor Ron DeSantis coming to the area on his first full day in office in January to announce the Blue-Green Algae Task Force, to Florida Gulf Coast University starting its historic “Water School,” to FGCU’s Dr. Mike Parsons releasing the initial results of the ongoing “What’s In The Water” program to monitor local pollution in mid-December, water quality dominated our 2019 headlines more than any other topic, with a whopping 28 features this year, ranging from “6 Questions” interviews to South Florida Water Management District meetings to water quality conferences to multiple public forums, and these do not count companion articles like Editorials or Red Tide updates. While we hope that water in 2020 is more like 2019 than 2018, as an issue, it is most assuredly not going away!
#1: Death in The Family
The first big story of 2019 remained the top story all year! Dr. Leroy Hommerding, the long-time Director of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library, was the victim of a brutal murder on January 20, in the doorway of the building he worked so hard to make a reality and that he loved so much. The man charged with First Degree Murder in his death, Adam Soules, is awaiting trial.
He was smart, funny, caring, eclectic and insightful, with a balance of modesty and pride! He was not a man without ego – you need an ego to build the vision that transformed the Beach Library – but he was without pretense, as from the youngest schoolchild to the most senior of citizens, he was simply “Dr. Leroy.”
He often spoke about his deep feelings for the homeless, and knew the library would, out of necessity, be a safe haven for them and instituted some minimal rules to smooth the way. In the immediate aftermath of his death, some wanted to strike out at those they judged responsible, but over time, most realized that Dr. Leroy would not want any of us to be vindictive and vengeful, but compassionate, caring and understanding.
An “Island Legend” before his sudden death, his magnificent legacy, the Beach Library, will continue to entertain and educate those already here and those yet to come to our island for generations to come.
His loss unfortunately was the second Fort Myers Beach homicide in the past two years, but unlike the equally-tragic murder of Pamela Hutchinson in April 2018, she was an island visitor and a stranger to us. Dr. Leroy was someone quite different; he was virtually known by all, whether as an acquaintance or a great friend; his was truly “A Death In The Family!”