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Fort Myers Beach Council moves toward nuisance abatement board

By Staff | Aug 5, 2020

Responding to a group of business owners and residents upset by a fatal shooting on the beach behind the Lani Kai Island Resort last month, the majority of the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council voiced support for a nuisance abatement board at its Monday meeting.

The details have not been worked out but, based on copies of similar nuisance laws in Lee County that Town Attorney John Herin Jr. has forwarded to the council, such nuisance abatement boards have the authority to address violations, up to and including shutting down businesses that are not in compliance. Herin said such a board would be appointed by the town council.

Councilmember Jim Atterholt called for a nuisance abatement board “with significant teeth.”

Atterholt said the town can choose between Bedford Falls or Pottersville from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Mayor Ray Murphy expressed support for such a board as “another tool in the toolbox to use. I’m not just singling out the Lani Kai; it can be used for anybody at a future date.”

Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros said her experience with nuisance abatement boards is that “they are a lot of work and they rarely accomplish a great deal.”

Hosafros said she shared the public’s concerns about crime and quality of life on the Beach but said the council’s focus should be on policing. The issue with Lani Kai is a law enforcement issue, she said. “They are the ones who are best suited to take care of crime in our community,” she said.

The nuisance abatement board issue also became enmeshed in an unrelated controversy– a new lawsuit challenge filed against the town last month over its approvals of Margaritaville. The latest lawsuit over the constitutionality of a provision of the town’s comprehensive plan, was filed by Beach resident Christine Patton one week before the shooting, a day after a challenge over due process was denied by the State Court of Appeals.

The members of the public who attended Monday’s meeting were mostly critical of Lani Kai and most also spoke out against the lawsuit challenging the town’s approval for the Margaritaville project. They called for aggressive legal action and some blamed Lani Kai’s ownership for what they believe is their support of the lawsuit.

The board voted on Monday to respond to Patton’s latest suit. The council will hold an executive session Thursday to discuss strategy after being urged by TPI and its supporters to be aggressive in its response. The council also will discuss the nuisance abatement board in open session on Thursday.

Some of those who spoke out against the Lani Kai on Monday cited calls for paramedic service and to the Sheriff’s Office which outnumbered other locations in town.

Lani Kai Island Resort Marketing Director Melissa Schneider noted that the resort and its beach area are the main gathering spot in the town’s entertainment district, attracting thousands of people weekly. Calls for service can range from everything from heat stroke to heart attacks and regular check-ups by the Sheriff’s Office though the resort has been the scene of reported crimes as well over the years.

Schneider said that the Lani Kai is often used as a central marker for reporting emergencies that occur nearby, as it is a well-known location. “The north end of the island has always been the area that was the busiest with the largest amount of crowds. Thousands of people walk through the north-end on a weekly basis in the offseason, and exponentially more during season or high-season,” Schneider said.

Lani Kai General Manager Ken Conidaris sent a letter to the town council outlining a list of security and safety changes the resort is working on implementing in the wake of last month’s incident.

Councilmember Bill Veach said the changes proposed by the Lani Kai in a letter to the town are “a little short” and urged the hotel’s ownership to “use their influence to drop these lawsuits.”

Last week on Facebook, TPI President Tom Torgerson called for a “surge” to attend Monday’s meeting to take the offensive against the latest lawsuit and referred to opponents of the project as “a cell.”

At Monday’s meeting, Mari Torgerson accused Patton of holding the community “hostage.”

Marty Harrity, co-owner of The Whale, which is near the Lani Kai, expressed frustration at the delays in the Margaritaville project. Harrity said the town council “has an opportunity to make the Town of Fort Myers Beach one of the premier communities for residents and tourists in all of South Florida.” Harrity said the building of Margaritaville will “start redevelopment of our decaying entrance to our town with the building of Margaritaville but the project continues to be delayed by frivolous lawsuits.” Harrity said deterioration of sales at his restaurant may lead to him and his partner considering other options for The Whale due to continued delays in the construction of Margaritaville.

Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce President Jacki Liszak read a statement from the chamber board which expressed concern for “police-required incidents on the island” which is “detrimental to our island image” and “dangerous for our community.”

The statement went on to express support for the council to pursue a nuisance abatement board, increased policing or a community action group.

The statement also called on Patton to drop her lawsuit against Margaritaville.

Liszak also related an incident of dealing with drunks in town during a bachelorette party.

Silver Sands owner Andrea Carriere said she has the Sheriff’s Office on speed dial and said she is tired of dealing with “vagrants” and the “homeless.” She called Margaritaville “a life preserver.”

Councilmember Dan Allers called a nuisance abatement board a “step in the right direction.” Allers said it will “put people on notice that behavior that has gone on in the past will no longer be tolerated. They will have to answer to it.”

Murphy said he has been meeting with the Conidaris family, which owns the Lani Kai.

“There has been a jolt in this community. Not just by us citizens but also from their family,” Murphy said. “No one wants a murder on their property.”

As for the lawsuits over Margaritaville, Murphy said “we all want the redevelopment down there to happen. It’s going to happen. Once it does, that’s what we’ve all been waiting for.”

According to Lee County Government Communications Specialist Tim Engstrom, the county had a nuisance abatement board two decades ago, but it was disbanded.

Letter from Lani Kai to Town of Fort Myers Beach Council announcing proposed safety and security changes:

Lani Kai Island Resort General Manager Ken Conidaris recently sent out a letter to the Town of Fort Myers Beach Council regarding security and safety measures being taken in the wake of a fatal shooting behind the resort on July 15. One person was killed and two people were injured by an unidentified shooter. The victims were local friends and family of a security staff member.

Below is the portion of the letter relating to security and safety (another section provided by the hotel also outlined additional measures for social distancing and enhanced sanitization for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic) which was forwarded by hotel management to the Fort Myers Beach Observer:

“In light of recent events that occurred on the beach behind its property a few weeks ago, although completely out of the control of the staff, the Lani Kai family has continued to update current systems and operations with the hopes that it will help prevent any type of unwelcome activity around the property moving forward.

“Sadly, this was a tragedy that could have happened anywhere, but we want to do what we can to further prevent anything like that from occurring again anywhere near our property,” Conidaris stated.

Implementations currently being discussed include:

After hours, only guests of the hotel will be able to walk the property wearing guest wristbands there will be zero tolerance for trespassers. Room keycards will soon change over to wrist fobs.

Any guest who causes significant damage to rooms or cause any type of altercation will be placed on a Do Not Rent list.

Cover-ups and shoes must be worn indoors on the property. Often, beach-goers will walk through the hotel’s interior venues or public areas in just their swimwear. This will no longer be permitted.

Begin issuing a resort fee to hotel guests, which would include guest parking, pool access, pool/beach towels, WiFi, two bottles of water daily and discount beach furniture rental and water sports activities with Wind & Water Sports.

Continue to hire Lee Co. Sheriff’s Office deputies during busier-than-usual holidays, events or days that are expected to bring a larger crowd of people to the island.

Also hire Lee Co. Sheriff’s Office deputies during the weekends in season, every Saturday and Sunday.

Staff will go through security training certifications, licensing and thorough background checks; anyone on the team must be certified and licensed. Hospitality staff already receives quarterly alcohol awareness meetings, but additional staff will now attend security meetings, to follow up with any updates or mandates to the department.

Conidaris said the resort’s management is “doing our due diligence” on implementing the plan.

“Understanding that the Lani Kai is a longstanding Fort Myers Beach icon and landmark, with thousands of people passing through our public property on a weekly basis during the off-season tens of thousands during season, dealing with that sheer volume of beach-goers, unfortunately incidents can, do and will occur, but we’re doing everything we can to mitigate these occurrences, however great or small,” Conidaris stated.