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Locals fear county changes to San Carlos Island Plan could push development

March 13, 2019
By JESSE MEADOWS ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The San Carlos Island Community Plan is getting an update, but residents have concerns about the changes being proposed.

Lee County staff released the changes to the Lee Plan and the Land Development Code on Feb. 26.

According to the document, titled Goal 32, the changes are intended to preserve the working waterfront, redevelop commercial areas to serve local residents, improve traffic and walkability, and protect estuarine water quality.

Article Photos

The quiet shrimping community has been fighting to save its prime waterfront real estate from overdevelopment for years.


Those were the four main topics of importance staff said they identified a year ago at a visioning workshop where San Carlos Island residents were asked for input on the needs of their community.

"At the workshop (last year), numerous island residents stated they wanted commercial development along the San Carlos Boulevard corridor," said Mikki Rozdolski, Planning Section manager of Lee County Community Development.

But Charlie Whitehead, Beach Area Civic Association president, said he remembered it differently.

"I do recall at the workshop people saying that they favored redevelopment to new development. In other words, if there's a restaurant there and a guy wants to rebuild his old restaurant into a new restaurant, that's redevelopment, that's all good," he said.

Rozdolski said lot sizes along the boulevard have limited redevelopment.

"Many lots are 60-feet-by-140-feet, which would require variances from the Land Development Code to accommodate commercial development. The Mixed Use Overlay is proposed to extend to Buttonwood Drive, offering opportunities for lot assemblage. The Mixed Use Overlay also provides alternative property development regulations that are more conducive to redeveloping older platted areas," she said.

Bill Semmer, who owns local business Semmer Electric, said they already have plenty of businesses on the island.

He conducted an inventory and found 166 as of last September.

"We tried to turn that in to them and they didn't even want to look at it," he said.

"The expansion of the Mixed Use Overlay would mean increased development on both sides of San Carlos Boulevard where, not coincidentally, developers have been buying up property," Whitehead said.

"Everything in here is geared toward development. Nothing here reflects sound planning principles of limiting development in coastal areas or along evacuation routes in hurricane-vulnerable areas.

These are county-proposed amendments and not community-proposed amendments. That screams out, and part of the language mirrors the language that would allow commissioners to approve the Bay Harbour proposal," said Whitehead.

County staff has proposed replacing the "Destination Resort Mixed Use Water Dependent" land use category with the "Marina Village future land use" category.

The controversial Bay Harbour Marina Village project had previously sought approval through the DRMUWD category, as had the Ebb Tide project that was approved before it, though many have criticized the 113-dwelling-unit Bay Harbor project for being too big and out of character for the island.

In regards to the amendments specifically benefitting Bay Harbour, Rozdolski said that they "will not change the process, requirements, or make it 'easier' than what is already in place."

The Marina Village land use category "is characterized by its mix of uses, proximity to navigable water, and availability of public services," the amendment states.

Five acres of contiguous land with access to navigable waters and roadways are required and the land must be half a mile from a transit route.

Standard density ranges from 6 to 10 dwelling units per acre, with a maximum of 15 dwelling units per acre for developments that utilize an affordable housing program.

These requirements are very similar to separate Lee Plan amendments proposed by the landowner of the 7.58-acre Bay Harbour project last year.

Those amendments (CPA2017-00005), which received 261 letters of opposition from local business and property owners, were supposed to have a final hearing in December, but the landowner requested an extension until June 8.

Bay Harbour's requested changes also proposed that density of a mixed-use property be calculated from the entire acreage - something that's been included in the county's section on the Marina Village future land use category as well.

That policy, 11.1.2, says three uses have to be proposed, and they must include residential, commercial, and light industrial, with one of the non-residential uses being water-dependent.

Another policy, 11.2.7, says areas in the mixed use overlay may also "use the area of non-residential uses in their density calculations."

More density means more people, more cars, and more development.

"They're double-dipping," said Joanne Semmer, San Carlos Island's historian and an expert witness in land use cases.

"Let's say they have 5 acres, even though they have a restaurant and a marina and everything, they're counting the (residential) density on the whole 5 they get the density for the entire square footage, but they can add all these commercial uses on top of it. It's extremely intense use," she said.

Another change Semmer is concerned about is the replacement of Policy 32.2.2, which requires an analysis to be done before public funds can be spent to construct new parking lots.

Instead, the county wants to replace it with a new policy to "reduce impacts on coastal wildlife such as sea turtles" by using "appropriate light management fixtures."

"We put (Policy 32.2.2) in because people wanted to turn San Carlos Island into a giant parking lot for Estero Island...this way, they have to do a study, an analysis, before they can spend public funds," Semmer said.

Residents used this policy in their arguments against the county last fall, when staff wanted to use the park and ride lot on Main Street and San Carlos Boulevard to store their trolleys.

If the amendments are approved, the sea turtles may be better protected, but San Carlos Island could see a lot more parking lots.

Lee County Department of Community Development will hold an open house to discuss the changes on March 20 at the Moose Lodge, 19090 San Carlos Blvd, from 4 to 6 p.m.

They will than have to go through the process required to amend the Lee Plan: one hearing with the Local Planning Agency, and two hearings with the Board of County Commissioners.

San Carlos Island is the first of 17 community plans in the Lee Plan to be addressed.

The next open houses will be with Bayshore and Alva, and visioning meetings will be scheduled this year with North Olga, Caloosahatchee Shores, and Page Park.

"I think that those folks in those other communities should be paying close attention because this is what's in store for them," said Whitehead.



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