Despite the fact that Lee County has been growing leaps and bounds, the small unincorporated community of San Carlos Island has only seen one major development in approximately the past 25 years. This may be about to change as two substantial projects are in the works that will significantly change the area. One – known as Ebb Tide has already been approved by Lee County zoning - and the other, Bay Harbour Marina Village will have its last public hearing before the Lee County Hearing Examiner on May 25. In anticipation of that meeting, The Sun Bay Paper decided to look into the Bay Harbour Marina Village project.
It started when one of our local readers-Margie Tirey stopped into our offices about a month ago. She was on her way to an earlier hearing on Bay Harbour Marina Village where testimony, public comment and evidence was being presented to persuade County officials to give final approval to Southern Comfort Storage, LLC, the parent company seeking to launch what some have called “the best thing ever to happen to San Carlos Island.” Others in the community however, spoke against the proposed marina, ships store, condominium high-rise, parking deck and boat storage build out.
All together construction, if approved, would allow for 113 units including 75 rental units, 38 units designated as workforce housing, 525 parking spaces, and dry storage for 286 boats with room for an additional 29 boats in wet slips.
The entire parcel to be developed encompasses 7.8 acres on Main Street less than a quarter mile from the Sky Bridge leading to Fort Myers Beach, one of Lee Counties most visited locations and long known for its traffic congestion during the peak tourist season months of mid-January through Easter. Long lines of cars are sometimes backed up to Summerlin Road and, often, traffic is at a standstill causing massive delays for those trying to get onto the Beach where – once they do arrive- often have difficulty finding a parking place. Those who support Bay Harbour Marina Village point to the 525 easily accessed parking deck as one solution to this problem.
“This is a great project,” said Jack Mayher, one of Southern Comfort’s principles and a spokesman for the company.
“We have hired some of the best people in Lee County to work on Bay Harbour Marina Village to insure everything is done to the highest standards and consistent with preserving and enhancing the character and quality of life for the people of San Carlos Island,” he added.
It appears the company spared no expense to prepare and present the project to the public including hiring the respected firm of Maxwell, Hendry and Simmons to conduct an economic impact study. As part of their exhaustive study, they also concluded that the entire project – once completed - would add $50 million dollars of value to Lee County coffers bringing in approximately $800,000 a year just in property taxes based on the current assessment rate of 1.5%.
Then there are a myriad of other taxable events associated with the property including sales taxes, rental taxes, fuel taxes from the marina operations not to mention the possibility of any required impact fees. All together it is estimated that when completed Bay Harbour Marina Village will provide a positive cash flow of well over a million dollars annually to the people of Lee County.
There is also one added benefit associated with the project – “workforce housing” – a unique concept recently introduced into land planning lexicons to allow moderate-income housing for firefighters, teachers and others often required to live in the district where they work. This concept appears to be tailor-made for island communities where affordable housing is often at a steep premium. 38 of the residential condos at Bay Harbour Marina Village have been designated to fit this niche and will, according to Southern Comfort’s published material, “fill the need for those who find it difficult to find a place to live at a monthly rate they can afford.” According to Mayher, rents would be based on income bring the units within reasonable range for those who need it most.
“We want to stress these units are not low-income housing, they are workforce housing that serve the needs of a special subset of our community that has been recognized by the Florida Housing Corporation as essential for public service workers,” said Mayher
Once again, to incorporate this concept into the overall Bay Harbour Marina Village project, experts were hired and consulted, including Dr. David DePew, an engineer and master land planner with the well-respected firm of Morris DePew.
“Bay Harbour Marina Village is extremely well conceived and designed to enhance the quality of life on San Carlos Island; Jack and his investors have spared no expense to insure the development enhances not detracts from the community,” said DePew.
Not everyone is happy with Bay Harbour Marina Village and Bill and Joanne Semmer speak to the reasons they oppose the project as currently being presented for zoning approval.
“I support the marina and boat storage buildings but do not want to see the condos or parking garage built,” Joanne told us.
“In my opinion, Mr. Mayher and his other investors are seeking to add too much density to San Carlos Island and in doing so will detract from the working waterfront land uses currently allowed for the property they are developing,” she added. It should be noted that Ms. Semmer did testify in favor of the nearby Ebb Tide project.
Semmer has organized a small group of people to lobby against the project including the hiring of Lawyer Ralph Brooks to represent their opposition at the hearings.
Semmer’s group relies heavily on the wording of a Resolution, referred to as a Community Redevelopment Act (CRA) promulgated by the County Commissioners in 1978 saying density would not be increased on San Carlos Island and that the County would maintain “working waterfront” zoning for the land. According to Mayher, the CRA was rescinded in 1983 when the Lee Plan and Land Development Code became effective. His contention seems validated due to the fact that the County staff did not refer to the CRA when they recommended Bay Harbours’ request for a zoning change be approved.
Nick Ruland, the former owner of The Fishmonger Restaurant, points out that Bay Harbour Marina Village is on the opposite side of the street from where the majority of what remains of the “working waterfront” is still located. He points to the fact that “in respect to the fishing industry only two working waterfront businesses are still operating – Erickson and Jensen and Trico Shrimp Company.”
It seems critical to say that both of those businesses have sent letters in support of Bay Harbour Marina Village to every County Commissioner.
Joel Andrews writing for Erickson and Jensen said he “believed the Bay Harbour project as well as the Ebb Tide proposal will serve San Carlos Island positively.” He noted that the “Island has more empty buildings than prosperous businesses” saying that the “two projects would be the catalyst needed to revitalize this area and make San Carlos Island a Lee County destination.”
Dennis Henderson, owner of Trico Shrimp and a well-known operator on the island concurred saying “We see a need for this Bay Harbour Marina Village.”
The Channel Mark (a nearby restaurant) has changed names so often you can’t keep up. If they had parking they might have a chance. It would be great to have year round tenants to support the businesses and the businesses also need places for their employees to park. With seasonal traffic and construction it would be so helpful for the employees to live close to where they work! The need for affordable housing in a tourist destination is huge! The improvements and the clean-up that a new development would make to this island would be tremendous,” he elaborated in his statement.
‘Many of the businesses that used to be there are either closed or in the process of shrinking, there really is no reason to continue to stick to an idea whose time has passed,” said Ruland, who also has an interest in the development.
Jane Plummer, a local realtor for over 28 years agrees.
“The property cannot survive on the current zoning designation,” says Plummer, adding, “Without the change on zoning that Mr. Mayher is requesting, the property cannot generate sufficient income to pay for itself.”
Tirey, who lives in nearby Boardwalk Caper and owns overlooking property on nearby Oak Street also agreed and elaborated on why Bay Harbour Marina Village would be a welcome addition to San Carlos Island.
“Currently the property and those surrounding it are being used for storage of boats, cars, motorhomes some of which are ok and many that are derelict, it really is an eyesore to the community. I would be more than happy to build on my property if Bay Harbour Marina Village is approved because it would take a trashed out area and make it nice for everyone,” said Tirey at our offices last month
Plummer said the trashed out look that dominates much of the area is highly unappealing to visitors and residents.
“We picked up two bags of trash right on Main Street in just a couple of hours, way too may transients who just seem to treat the area as their own personal dump.”
While the dilapidated look of the thoroughfares and empty lots are a minor problem, a lack of affordable housing for workers is a far greater matter. There are currently only a few hundred annual rentals left on Fort Myers Beach and this dearth of affordable housing has caused big problems for business owners and residents who need service workers to make things run smoothly.
“What’s badly needed are annual rentals for the people who work in our schools, hotels, restaurants, fire departments and the tradespeople who repair our homes, air conditioners, service our pools and just generally do the everyday tasks that makes our community work,” said Plummer.
“The skyrocketing costs of rentals has made it almost impossible for people to live on or near the islands. They can’t afford to drive 30 minutes in heavy traffic every day to get to work,” she added.
Mayher and his investors have asked the County to approve his project for Central Urban zoning, a category that already exists in the land use code.
“Currently the near 8 acre parcel has numerous, incongruent zoning designations that for all practical purposes renders much of the property unusable for a large workable project. Unless these individual parcels are rezoned and combined into a designation like Central Urban, the land cannot be put to its highest and best use. Staff at Lee County recognized these facts and that is why they made a recommendation to approve the rezoning,” Mayher told the Sun Bay. Paper
When asked if they agreed with Mayher on this point, Joanne Semmer said she did not.
“I don’t think it should be allowed because San Carlos Island cannot support more density. Bay Harbour Marina Village is seeking greater density than other projects that have been approved on the Island like Ebb Tide where the developers were held to a one for one standard on density, she said.
A close look at the project she mentioned does not fully support her contention, since plans there already include a proposed 450 unit hotel and roughly 800 docks, density is already greater than the one for one taken from nearby mobile home communities that will be phased out once construction begins. That trade out provided 271 units but the hotel alone would far more than double that density. It would appear based on total density numbers that Bay Harbour Marina Village will actually have less density with far greater upland support than other projects already approved or operating under “grandfathered” standards that do not comply with the current land use code.
It is also noted that the project is on the harbor side of the island fronting the Federal Channel that is the primary reason for having a working waterfront approach to San Carlos Island. It is here that the Shrimp Fleet, fish houses, deep water boat launches and marine repair and service industries are located. Bay Harbour Marina Village is on the opposite side of Main Street and has few viable “waterfront” industries still operating. Many that did years ago have long since shut their doors and moved on giving the area a vacant, unused appearance. Most of the property simply serves as a storage area for Southern Comfort Storages’ current operations.
“There are over 20 businesses closed on San Carlos Boulevard that might thrive again if Bay Harbour Marina Village is allowed. With another 100 plus people living at the Village, businesses would have a customer base and with the parking deck, the Channel Mark and a few other businesses might finally make good because they’d have ample parking for their employees,” Plummer told us.
Another concern raised by the Semmers and their allies is increased traffic on an island already overtaxed by congestion.
“There are too many cars already using the existing roadway and besides if Bay Harbour Marina Village is built all the increased traffic it would generate could compromise our hurricane evacuation plan,” Joanne Semmer insisted.
While there have been traffic studies completed that refute this idea one little discussed aspect to the development that benefits everyone on San Carlos Island is the total redo of Main Street the main artery on the East side of San Carlos Island. This improved roadbed may actually aid in hurricane evacuation.
According to Mayher a complete upgrade to a class “A” road must be built by them as part of the overall project.
“The County will require us to redo the road all the way from Oak Street where we start to the connector at San Carlos Boulevard. If we do this portion and Ebb Tide does their section from Oak Street on the East down to their project at Parrot Key then the entire road will be more than sufficient for those coming to the properties,” he said.
“There really won’t be much greater traffic, if any, says Plummer since those who have storage units already in place drive on the road all the time and besides there are so pretty large users of the road already like the Key West Express and Salty Sam’s Marina and the mobile home parks already in place. In my opinion there will be less traffic actually on the road because Bay Harbour Marina Village is like a gated community only even more walkable,”, elaborated the Realtor
When the final hearing is held next Tuesday, Lee County officials will be faced with making a meaningful choice. There is no doubt that there are two sides to the issue and that both feel convinced that they have the best interests of San Carlos Island at heart.
How the decision falls is anyone’s guess but it is pretty clear to even a random observer that the area is sorely in need of revitalization. Large parcels of property are blighted and many buildings are vacant on both Main Street and San Carlos Blvd. which is the main thoroughfare leading to Fort Myers Beach one of the great economic engines for Lee County.
If approved the project will create jobs, provide rentals, substantially increase the property tax base and provide parking for over 500 cars. For many years Fort Myers Beach has been looking for a way to keep so many cars from going onto the Island during peak season. Bay Harbour Marina Village may also provide that ancillary benefit to its neighboring community.
On the other hand, the Semmer family believes the project is just too big for San Carlos Island. They say they want to protect the “working waterfront” that has long characterized this small but unique part of unincorporated part of Lee County. However, with both remaining seafood companies on record as supporting the project, this may be a non-starter with officials looking to bring jobs and substantial improvements to the entirety of the island community.
Considering the projected county budget shortfalls, lack of affordable working class housing in the area and the desirability of more parking and boat storage, Lee County would do well to consider Bay Harbour Marina Village carefully.
One thing is certain, change is inevitable and soon we will all know the extent of that transformation for the residents of San Carlos Island.
For those interested in attending the hearing on Bay Harbour Marina Village will be held on May 25th at 9:00 O’clock at 1500 Monroe Street, Fort Myers, Florida.