Town Reduces Beach Baptist Liens by $89K

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Four Hearings Pushed Back

The Town of Fort Myers Beach Council approved a huge Lien Mitigation reduction for the First Baptist Church of Fort Myers Beach, commonly known as Beach Baptist, at its meeting on Monday, February 3. Its original agenda was much more ambitious, drawing an audience of roughly 50 people, but Council deferred the issue that drew the biggest attendance, the rehearing for the proposed Dune Walkover & Boardwalk for Texas Hold ‘Em LLC and Squeeze Me Inn LLC at 8150 & 8170 Estero Boulevard, adjacent to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area, to its Tuesday, February 18 meeting at the request of the applicant. Council continued its three other Public Hearings to that meeting as well, one over inadequate Public Notice and the other two to give the five-person panel more time to come to greater agreement.

$900 & Time Served

Under “Administrative Agenda: Lien Reduction Request for First Baptist Church of Fort Myers Beach,” Town Manager Roger Hernstadt told Council, “You must clarify the current status of the applicant relative to their request for a lien mitigation, as to if they are in compliance with their violations, then give us instruction on how to proceed. The applicant believes it has a compelling story to tell!” Town Staff made the case that Beach Baptist is not yet in compliance over a fence violation. Pastor Shawn Critser proved however, that the fence issue is not on the Notice of Violation, so Council heard the lien mitigation request.

Pastor Critser traced the Notice of Violation case back to 2014, and even earlier at some points, that included a long series of discussions involving at least the “last four Town Staffs and two Town Magistrates,” with all these changes, miscommunications and false starts adding up to Beach Baptist’s current lien fine amount of $90,000. “We are caught in a ‘Catch-22,’” explained Pastor Critser, “with the fine clock ticking at $75-a-day. That is why this number is so large and we cannot do anything about it, even though the Magistrate told us the Town is not in the business of making money off of fines, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, I am sitting on a $90,000 bill! If I have to write the Town a $90,000 check, the Church cannot do any other activities, because we will have to try to keep Beach Baptist from going into foreclosure.”

Council member Joanne Shamp replied, “I appreciate what Beach Baptist does for the community, but some of these violations are for fire walls and alarm systems and a whole two pages of life-&-death safety issues. From my point-of-view, we can talk about reducing your fine, but not down to something like $5,000 as you must pay a fine.” Pastor Critser, however, disputed most of those safety citations.

“This is bizarre,” concluded Council member Bruce Butcher. Shamp asked the Town Manager to suggest a mitigation amount. “I would say $10,000 would recoup the Town efforts to bring this matter to a conclusion,” said Hernstadt. “If he cannot make that payment in 30 days, we can work with him.” Butcher countered with, “$900 and time served! All that happened just irritates me to no end, so that is my deal!” Shamp reiterated, “Several are serious safety violations, so I will go with the Town Manager’s recommendation,” but Vice Mayor Ray Murphy and Council member Rexann Hosafros sided with Butcher. Mayor Anita Cereceda concluded, “You have three people at $900!” Hosafros asked if Beach Baptist needed more time to pay, but Pastor Critser replied, “I will write out that check quickly,” with Hernstadt quipping, “before we change Town Staff again!” Shamp stated, “I am happy for you at $900 but this was not the right thing to do,” with Cereceda adding, “This was your lucky day, sir!”

With the Lien Mitigation conclusion, Council in a separate matter unanimously approved the Beach Baptist Church Farmer’s Market adding Friday to their usual Wednesday schedule through April.

Council also unanimously approved the Special Event Permit for the 62nd Annual Lions Club Shrimp Festival on Saturday & Sunday, March 14 & 15. They filled two vacancies on the Marine Resources Task Force with Jennifer Rusk and Renee Heil and unanimously voted to appropriate $75,000 to fund a new traffic signal at Old San Carlos Boulevard and North Crescent/5th Avenue. The funding will match a $63,800 FBIP Grant.

More Lien Negotiations

With Council clearly in a generous mood, developer Joe Orlandini immediately followed Pastor Critser to the podium during the final Public Comment, to address his lien issues for 1710 & 1740 Estero Boulevard as well as 80 Avenue E. “I come before you for a similar situation to Shawn. I have gone through this for years over permits, as I was abused, I feel, all through the numerous staff changes, so I come before you to ask for mitigation to deal with these fines. I met with the Town Manager countless times for help with all these issues and I ask that you allow him to come up with a method to settle this.”

During Town Manager Items immediately following Orlandini’s request, Hernstadt said, ‘If you delegate the authority to me and I come up with a number I feel appropriate, I ask that you accept my recommendation and not second-guess me.” Hosafros asked Town Attorney John Herin, Jr, “Is there any reason we legally should not do this,” with Herin replying, “You can always modify your rules and vote to delegate this.”

Shamp appreciated Herin’s input “but I do not favor Council waiving this. I would like to hear the recommendation of the Town Manager, then approve it.” Butcher and Cereceda, however, favored allowing the Town Manager to negotiate the settlement, with Murphy adding, “I will vote with the majority.” Shamp said she did not like the precedent, “though I am really glad this is being worked out.” Council then, on a roll call vote at Hernstadt’s request, authorized waiving town rules and directing Hernstadt to negotiate a settlement with Orlandini regarding liens on 1710/1740 Estero and 80 Avenue E, by a 4 to 1 vote, with Shamp Against.

Four Continuances

Council heard four Public Hearings but varying circumstances prevented any final conclusions.

While Council continued the Dune Walkover & Boardwalk Rehearing to its February 18 meeting, six citizens addressed the matter in the initial “Public Comment,” even though Cereceda cautioned upfront that none of their statements would be on the official Public Record of the hearing. Five favored denying the Dune Walkover & Boardwalk, and as each addressed Council, the roughly 30 audience members in support of that position held up photographs of CWA endangered nesting shorebirds. Cereceda encouraged all six speakers to return on February 18 “so your comments are part of the Public Record.”

Under “2nd Reading & Final Public Hearing: Vacation Ordinance of Town Interest in Real Property,” Council raised several issues, including the process potentially bypassing the Local Planning Agency (LPA), whether to notify neighbors within 300 or 500 feet of a vacation property, how to protect water-adjacent lands at the end of sidestreets, and if the Town can sell its excess property, causing Council to continue the Hearing to its February 18 Meeting.

Under “2nd Reading & Final Public Hearing: Ordinance to Amend the Land Development Code for Fences, Walls, & Entry Gates,” Council had concerns over sidelot hedge heights, automobile setbacks from gates, safety view corridors, Estero Boulevard sidewalk safety issues, landscaping buffers, tree heights, fence relocations, code setbacks near water, and “Sunset” regulations. Finally Hosafros, clearly frustrated, made a Motion to continue the Hearing to the February 18 Meeting, stating that “I am fine with changing a sentence or two, but I am concerned about the process, as a Town Council meeting is not the place where you rewrite things. This is not the way to make a law, while you are rewording an Ordinance on the fly, so I am not comfortable voting on this!” The continuance passed 4 to 1, with Shamp Against.

Council continued the “2nd Reading & Final Public Hearing for the Minimum Use Determination Regulations” to the February 18 Meeting over a Public Notice issue.

Bay Oaks Recreational Center

In other matters, Under “Advisory Committee Reports,” Chair Betty Simpson of the Bay Oaks Recreational Center Advisory Board (BORCAB) provided an update on the potential for a new Bay Oaks Recreational Center. “BORCAB worked over the past year on an action plan for an updated Bay Oaks campus, as our surveys indicate that the current one built in 1984 is inadequate and obsolete. We are examining a plan that will have two new buildings; one a community center and the other an athletic center. The buildings would be three stories and glass so everyone can see them from Estero Boulevard and at night. We may relocate the small ballfield, would like an outdoor amphitheater, may replace the tennis courts with clay and a fitness trail loop to connect to Matanzas Pass Preserve.”

Butcher asked, “What are the next steps?” Hernstadt replied, “Our consultant has this information and will present it to you at the Management & Planning session on Thursday, February 6, where you will actually see these concepts on sketches, to better understand the vision of the future of Bay Oaks. If Council likes this, you can authorize the consultant to move on to the next step.” Murphy added, “I am glad we are putting away a little bit of a nest egg for future plans, because it sounds like we will need it!” Butcher stated, “I saw the Sanibel center and it is quite impressive. The thing that struck me is they did it in partnership with Lee County and the Lee County School District, and they charge a reasonable fee to participate there. We would need a similar partnership to make this a reality.”

Under “Consent Agenda,” Council unanimously passed a Proclamation to support the Drug House Odyssey event from February 4 to 6; and a “Special Event” Application for the “Bay Oaks Sock Hop” on February 14.

Under “Council Member Items,” Shamp stated that the 7-member LPA cannot find a member to sit on the Historic Preservation Advisory Board (HPAB), apparently because no member has an historical interest or the time to serve, even though this is an LPA function. The Town Attorney attends LPA Meetings and stated that the LPA hopes Council will consider forming an independent HPAB. Cereceda noted that “two people on the LPA are running for Town Council, so if the Town must appoint two new people, perhaps we seek someone with a history background.”

Hosafros said that the Beach United Methodist Church has an issue with its parking spaces and the proposed new sidewalk to the Beach Elementary School, and the Town Manager is working on a viable solution. She stated that the Lee County School District is considering enrollment changes that may prevent Fort Myers Beach employees from sending their children to Beach Elementary School, “and that is important, as that is a crucial incentive to entice people to work on our island. If we lose too many kids, the District may not keep a school here.” She noted that “The Island Sand Paper” recently ran a guest editorial on the recently-increased Back Bay speed zone from No Wake to 25 miles-per-hour, saying “this is a dangerous and horrible thing, but the Town did not do that, nor are we in favor of or happy about that!” She also expressed concern that someone is digging a trench on the south end of the island near Sandarac which would lead to further sand loss in that area. Finally, she reiterated her concern that the Town must get more and better information to island voters about the two March 17 referendum issues, to move Town elections from March to November and increase Council member terms from three to four years.

Cereceda received confirmation from the Town Attorney that Council can request the Audit Advisory Committee to examine the Town’s Stormwater Funding Plan. Council’s next meeting is Tuesday, February 18, at 9 a.m.; one day later than usual due to the Presidents’ Day Holiday.