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Nuisance board proposal splits council

Lee County Sheriff's Office reports crime has decreased on Fort Myers Beach

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Sep 9, 2020

The idea of a nuisance abatement board, floated since a July shooting on the beach behind the Lani Kai Island Resort, did not receive a ringing endorsement from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office at a meeting of the Fort Myers Beach Council on Thursday.

The Sheriff’s Office was invited to discuss how a nuisance abatement board and ordinance would work, and how the Sheriff’s Office might be involved.

Lee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Andrew Prisco said the office was asked if the nuisance ordinance will be effective. Prisco said it depends on what the town is trying to accomplish.

Councilmember Bill Veach said his desire of a nuisance abatement board is for it to be “not a punitive thing” to “punish properties because we don’t like them or they have a bad perception” but to work with businesses to reduce criminal activity.

Prisco said “we already have a lot of that in place.” Prisco said the Sheriff’s Office has a community response unit that works with businesses and code enforcement on reducing crime.

Further, Prisco said that the “crime rate is already going in the right direction, down.”

According to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, crime has dropped on Fort Myers Beach. From 2018 to 2019, the most serious aggravated crimes decreased by approximately 25%.

Prisco said the areas of crime that a nuisance abatement board and ordinance would address are crimes that the office would do a thorough investigation of already.

“I don’t know that an ordinance would make it anymore stricter, maybe the follow-up, but for the most part in my experience anything that we have addressed here on the island – the businessowners, the rental agents they’ve been more than happy to comply,” Prisco said.

Prisco said a nuisance abatement board could put pressure on renters to vet prospective tenants in order to prevent drug dealing. “That could help out,” he said.

Councilmember Dan Allers said a nuisance abatement board “in my eyes is there to help facilitate you (so) that you don’t have to keep going back for the same reasons over and over and over again. It essentially levels the playing field for all of the businesses on the island to have to comply to the same rules that everybody does.

“This is not, in my eyes, a board that’s out there to close a business down or make sure your hedges are trimmed,” Allers said. “You have to do your investigation before anything can be done by them.”

Prisco said that a nuisance abatement board could help by following up on crimes and contacting the owners of certain properties. As far as taking on the sole responsibility of “serving people, scheduling hearings,” Prisco said “I don’t know that it’s going to be anymore helpful for you and I don’t know that we have the time or the resources to do that in any kind of expedient manner.” Prisco said “the crime numbers are already going down.”

Councilmember Jim Atterholt alleged that the Lani Kai required a “disproportionate” amount of public safety resources. “Something hasn’t worked,” Atterholt said.

According to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, the Lani Kai’s address represented approximately 2% of the department’s calls for service in town this year. Many of those are routine area checks by the department which are meant to deter crime. Those calls to that address also don’t necessarily mean that the call is to the Lani Kai. The address could be coded for a traffic stop or a medical call.

Prisco pointed to a host of changes made at the Lani Kai Island Resort since the shooting as part of consultations the Sheriff’s Office have had with the ownership. Prisco cited corrective measures the resort has taken including the hiring of Sheriff’s Office deputies for weekends and holidays, restricted access to the hotel, a do-not-rent list to problematic guests, an increase in beverage charges, a resort fee, and the elimination of certain vouchers for drinking.

“We don’t have a nuisance abatement board yet but we’ve already enacted and discussed and done all of these things with that specific location. I think that’s positive and I think that’s working,” Prisco said.

“That’s community policing.”

Atterholt said a nuisance abatement board could be a helpful tool if there was a business that was not being held accountable or implementing changes.

Prisco said if there was a business that “wasn’t willing to work with you and implement change” than “you are going to need some type of a more stringent tool because absent a call for service, absent the suspicion of a crime we really have no authority to go in there and just say ‘hey, you will discuss with me how to improve your business.’ Law enforcement doesn’t overreach at that aspect but from a town standpoint, from a nuisance abatement standpoint, that may give you a little more teeth to hold somebody accountable if they are not complying and working with you to begin with.”

Mayor Ray Murphy said he didn’t believe such a business existed in town. “They are either breaking a code or breaking the law, so we’ve got it covered.”

Murphy said he was “very undecided about this nuisance abatement board business.”

Murphy said he has met with attorney Ellyn Bogdanoff, who is working with the Lani Kai on its risk management. Murphy said “lots of changes are going to come about” at the hotel.

Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros said “I think we’re going down the wrong road with this.”

Hosafros said there aren’t any property owners thumbing their nose at the town council. “I think it’s quite a bureaucracy to create.”

Murphy said the uproar to create the nuisance abatement board was directed at one property. “That’s being mitigated now as we speak. Changes are being made,” he said.

Veach said he congratulated the Lani Kai on what they are doing. “I am not completely sold on the nuisance abatement board,” he said. “I see it as a useful tool.”