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Town to oppose skybridge on Big Carlos pass with resolution

March 14, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Town of Fort Myers Beach is planning to draft a resolution to Lee County opposing the replacement of the Big Carlos Pass drawbridge with a 60-foot tall fixed bridge.

The discussion came after a public meeting held by the county to gather community input on three alternative options to replace the bridge, which is 52 years old.

At Thursday's planning session, the council instructed Town Manager Roger Hernstadt to extend a hand to the City of Bonita Springs as well - if both municipalities agree, they could send a joint resolution together.

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A group of Marina Towers residents made a “field trip” to the north end of the island to get a first-hand look at what a skybridge looks like. They hope they won't get the same kind of bridge over Big Carlos Pass.

"I do think there is an opportunity for a coalition on this," Hernstadt said.

There was back and forth between the council members on whether it should wait for Bonita Springs or not, so a resolution will be drafted and will be sent to council for approval if Bonita Springs is not interested in a two-pronged effort.

"A unified message from both municipalities is a powerful statement," Council Member Anita Cereceda said. "That double whammy creates a far better message."

Lee County owns the bridge, not Fort Myers Beach or Bonita Springs. Due to the age of the bridge, the county is considering three alternatives: a "no-build" option in which the bridge would be rehabbed to draw out its life another 20 years; a new draw bridge of the same height with sidewalks and bike lanes; and a 60-foot tall bridge, similar to that at Matanzas Pass. For the two new bridge options, the county can build them to the Gulf side or the bay side of the current bridge, as the county would want to keep the old bridge open while the new one was under construction. At the January public meeting, more than 500 locals turned out to see the county's plans. The county had spent $40,000 on "to-scale" models of the two new bridge alternatives, as well as computer modeling, to help residents feel out the options.

The overwhelming majority opposed a "skybridge."

The public session was part of the county's project development and environmental study; it hopes to acquire state funding for the project.

Assistant County Manager Doug Meurer told the council Thursday the next step will be for county staff to proffer a preferred alternative to the county commission sometime late this year - the county wants to be sure the majority of residents are in town, so it won't schedule a meeting off-season, he said.

Gore asked Meurer if a town resolution would carry any weight in the end; initially, he said he "didn't know," but added that it would probably be considered a "super comment" since it would come from a body of elected officials. He wasn't sure, though, if comments were weighted by the state in the PD&E process for grant funding.

There is no public comment time at the council's management and planning sessions. While three minutes of public comment are allowed at the beginning and end of each regular council meeting, the council has agreed that the planning sessions are a time for the five of them to discuss issues without the added complication of public input.

Unless the council feels like letting someone get up to talk - and two members of the public were given permission by Mayor Dennis Boback to speak.

George Repetti, a resident of Island's End Condominium, asked if he could say something during the town's discussion, and stood up to give his opinion on the county's process of public input on the future bridge project.

"How many times do you have to get the opinion of the people before you know what's going on?" Repetti said.

Through Cella Molnar, consultants for the bridge project, the county had indirectly met with residents in the condominiums near the bridge last year to talk to them about "what we wanted," Repetti said. They'd all been adamantly against a skybridge. He encouraged the council to send the resolution.

"The Lee County Commissioners make that decision, but your voice is more important than mine," he said.

Mark McConnell also asked to be allowed to speak, and asked why Big Carlos Pass would even need a tall bridge, rather than the draw bridge system currently in operation.

"Big boats don't go in there," he said. "Do we really need a sky bridge so it doesn't have to open?"

Council Member Joanne Shamp said McConnell's comment made her think of the Estero Bay aquatic preserve, and the numerous natural habitats the estuary provides. She didn't support a taller bridge which could allow bigger boats to come in "where they don't belong or fit."

Facing a future reality

The town council isn't the only group thinking about the impacts of a sky bridge on Big Carlos Pass.

On Feb. 28, a group of nearly 20 residents from the Marina Towers condominium made the trek up Estero Boulevard and over Matanzas Pass Bridge for a "field trip."

Bob Miniger said he and his neighbors wanted to give themselves a tour and experience the north end's tall bridge.

"Today we got up close and personal with the sky bridge," Miniger said. "The sky bridge model didn't seem all that intrusive, and we didn't feel it was to scale."

The county's 3-D model seemed to quiet everyone down, but Miniger and others still aren't convinced it was accurate.

After lunch at Doc Ford's, the Marina Towers group talked to each other about their concerns for a new bridge. A majority of them support the rebuild option, and would rather not have a new bridge at all. But if a new bridge is inevitable, they want it to be the same height option.

"If it wasn't so hot, I'd ask you all to walk it," Miniger said, a suggestion met with laughs: it was in the upper 80s that afternoon.

The current Big Carlos Pass bridge is a popular recreation location for walkers, runners, bikers and fishers. Its gentle incline makes it more accessible than a sky bridge, which would be a challenge for some.

"It's more doable for most people because of the level. It's easier for ADA," said Peggy Miniger, Bob's wife.

The Marina Towers group was also concerned with the negative impacts any new bridge construction could have to the flora and fauna they enjoy right in their back yard. Their proximity to Lovers Key and the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area brings many kinds of birds, dolphin and manatees right up to their dock.

"I fish right off our dock and watch the manatees," Nace Romano said. "You see tour boats watching the dolphins every day."

The pier has a flaying station for the fishers. Romano said the pelicans and herons will hang out there, waiting for the scraps. There's even a little one they've named Alice, because she will step up close to avoid fighting with bigger birds for tidbits, he said.

Before there was a bridge, there was a restaurant and bait shop called the Oyster House at the end of the island. People used to throw the scraps and leftover baitfish out nearby, which brought the dolphins up close for dinner. Dolphins keep returning to that area, even though it's gone, Miniger said.

The neighbors are also concerned about turtle lighting. Those that face the beach have had to get a special kind of "turtle glass" installed in their condo to be sure that when they have lights on inside their homes at night, turtles aren't disoriented. The current bridge has no lights on it - but Peggy said she counted 29 on Matanzas Pass Bridge.

Part of the county's PD&E study has to include a report on environmental impacts, but the Marina Towers group is considering paying for their own study.

"The refurb option protects the environment," Miniger said. "Rebuild the same bridge is acceptable as a number 2."



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