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San Carlos Island residents send unified message

Consensus was clear at the county’s community visioning meeting.

February 14, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor (jsalmond@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Lee County's community development staff arrived on San Carlos Island Saturday to help the two-mile island envision its future.

But, a majority of the island's attendees were clear: they know what they want, and they know what they don't want.

They do want to support the locally-based shrimp fleet and fishing industry; they do want upgraded infrastructure, especially their streets; and they do want to see some of the "eyesore" properties cleaned up.

Article Photos

Marcy Anderson said she wanted some 'eyesores' cleaned up on San Carlos Island.

They don't want high rises, they don't want big development, they don't want new development that diminished the unique character of the island.

"We want slow and careful development, no huge buildings," said Paul Yacobelli, while representing his focus group.

Lee County is working on revamping the 17 community plans within the Lee Plan, a part of the process of the comprehensive update of the Lee Plan.

The idea is to make the Lee Plan, the county's comprehensive planning document, look ahead to 2040. So, the county's 17 unique, unincorporated communities have also been tasked to look ahead and think about what they want their community to look like. San Carlos Island is the first community to go through this revision; the first meeting was held to get feedback from the community. Later, staff will return with a community plan that's been amended to reflect that feedback, said Dirk Danley, a county planner.

"We don't live here. The community input is very important," he said. "Today, we gather your input to establish community goals."

Approximately 85 San Carlos Island residents, business owners and property owners attended the meeting at AMIkids Southwest Florida. At the beginning, they were asked to fill out a questionnaire to opine on ideas like "what makes San Carlos Island unique" and "what does San Carlos Island contribute to the county." After a brief overview of the comprehensive plan update and the process for the community plan review, county staff broke the crowd up into smaller groups for in-depth discussion about the questionnaire. One person from the group was tasked as its record-keeper, writing down group consensus of opinion.

In Charlie Whitehead's group, one of the first things someone countered with was "what does Lee County contribute to us?"

Dave Anderson's group said it'd like to see support from the county to educate the rest of the county - and state - about the uniquely precious working waterfront, one of the last in the state, and the rich history of the shrimping industry.

The uniformity of opinion across the seven sub-groups was clear when the groups reconvened to share their discussions with the whole meeting.

Protection of the island's historic industry was one of residents' top concerns.

"The working waterfront is really unique," Anderson said.

Next was maintaining the character of the island by making sure new development wasn't too big, too tall or too different compared to its neighbors. Many residents said that if new development should occur, they'd like to see service-based businesses that supported other island industries.

Many also agreed that beautifications would be a welcome change to the island, cleaning up some run-down areas and making the entry way on San Carlos Boulevard more attractive to attract businesses back to the strip.

Next was an updated infrastructure; Main Street is a two-lane road that gets backed up with traffic and could become difficult for emergency services to navigate. Buttonwood Drive could be improved, since many people use it as a cut-through. There are drainage problems persisting during the rainy seasons.

However, many in attendance agreed that too much change could alter the community with negative impacts. Most said they wanted the island to stay the friendly, laid-back community that it is right now.

"It's regular people with jobs, not the Lexus crowd," John Coons said for his group.

Others appreciated the close-knit-ness of the islanders; with only two miles to go on, most people know each other. The businesses are often owned by people who live there. The community supports itself in times of need.

"It's like living in the 50s," said Peter Ray. "It's a good environment. It would be a shame to ruin something so fabulous."

In his focus group, Ray wondered why San Carlos Island couldn't get something like Sanibel, which has codes that restrict the height of new buildings.

Ray's was among many comments about preventing new development from going too tall. Most of these comments were pointedly about the Bay Harbour Marina Village development, which goes before the Local Planning Agency in March. The tallest building is set to be at 145 feet; EbbTide, a project already approved nearly a decade ago, has permission to build up to 230 feet.

Bay Harbour Marina developer Jack Mayher attended the meeting to listen, but chimed in during development talks in his focus group.

"Everybody has a right to build their property," he said, adding that despite his multi-use commercial development, the lot line-to-lot line trend was already hitting San Carlos Island's residential redevelopment.

Realtor and long-time local Bob Beasley spoke for his focus group, saying those in his group agreed that a healthy mix of uses was welcome, as was promoting the walkability of the island.

In 10 years, his group would like to see the boating and fishing industry holding strong and a more thoughtful common design in the community architecture, as well as see the county spend more money on the island.

"Maybe dress up the street, dress up our entry," Beasley said.

Equipped with 85 surveys, county staff said they would review the comments received and set a date for the next meeting. Staff was unsure how long it would take to digest the meeting's results into a formattable product to bring back to the community for review.

Once the community has reviewed the updated plan, it will go before the Local Planning Agency and the Board of County Commissioners for approval.

For the community visioning process, Lee County has a webpage just for San Carlos Island's documents and related information. At the bottom of the page, it states: "Please send emails to sancarlosisland@leegov.com to let us know what you would like to see developed on San Carlos Island and where you would like to see it developed."

San Carlos Island does already have a community plan in the Lee Plan; it's approximately nine pages making up Chapter 12 (it will become Chapter 13 with the update).

Joanne Semmer, the unofficial island historian, was frustrated with what she saw as a new community plan. She's attended every community meeting the county's had with San Carlos Island, she said. She helped get the island designated as a working waterfront in 1999, which required its own visioning process, and the county didn't reference than plan at all. It did post the working waterfront report to the San Carlos Island webpage.

"The county seems to pick and choose," she said. "But, I thought it was a good meeting. I was happy to see everyone was on the same page."

Her focus group discussed incentivizing redevelopment that would keep it similar to what's already there.

Coons also thought the meeting went well, and was especially impressed by the clear community support for the fishing industry. He is not yet a full-time resident, but his mother, Mary Coons, is. He said the island is his happy place, and he's got plans to settle here permanently.

"I intend to be here, so decisions made now will govern what the island is like 10 years from now," he said.

 
 

 

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