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Monday, 14 March 2016 08:19

Voice of FMB Says "Keep the Park" Featured

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In response to a proposed massive development on Fort Myers Beach, a group of local stakeholders have created an organization, including a Facebook page and website, to provide concerned citizens a forum for input regarding desirability or implementation of the project. The organization is called the Voice of FMB and the stakeholders include: Boykin Management, operators of the Pink Shell Resort; Diamondhead, a Sunstream property; Larry and Justin Yax, from Edison Beach House; Tim, Jeff, and Paul Malbon, from the Best Western Beach Resort; and Doug Speirn-Smith, from Matanzas on the Bay.

The Development, commonly called the Grand Resorts plan, is designed and spearheaded by Tom Torgerson and his Minnesota based firm TPI Hospitality. The project has galvanized residents who oppose the drastically increased density sought by Torgerson - more than double that currently allowed under the Town's Comprehensive Plan (Comp Plan) - as well as the ultimate use of Crescent Beach Family Park. This park, lying at the base of Matanzas Pass Bridge at the entrance to the resort island community of Fort Myers Beach, currently provides a beautiful undeveloped view corridor to the Gulf of Mexico.

Grand Resorts has already purchased seven parcels, to implement its ambitious design. It also seeks to acquire Crescent Beach Family Park from the county. Without the park, its plans are much more tenuous, bordering on the dubious. Currently owned and operated by Lee County as a public park, where visitors and residents play volleyball and picnic on the beach, the plan by Torgerson to acquire this property to build a seawall and large high density building on the site has raised residents fears that FMB will lose its' small town Florida beach character.

This "character" is written into the community's Comp Plan that provides that the Town’s regulations should accomplish zoning goals to include "adopting design guidelines that encourage architecture and urbanism along Estero Boulevard that contributes to the human scale and the beach cottage character.” {Comp Plan in Policy 1-A-3}

According to Connie Ramos-Williams, spokesperson for the Voice of FMB, "We opened up our online forums so everyone could give as much input as possible before the Town makes a decision on TPI's application for Grand Resorts," Ramos said Tuesday in a phone interview with the Sun Bay Paper.

"The Town doesn't want to say anything about the application until its filed, and that's understandable, but Torgerson and his investors have launched a public relations campaign to convince people that the project is desirable, so we formed the Voice because we knew we also needed to do our due diligence on this project," added Ramos.

In addition to what ultimately happens to the County Park, residents are also concerned that the increased density will add to already burdensome traffic congestion on Fort Myers Beach. The location of the Torgerson development is considered a major Island bottleneck, and traffic is often backed up as far as two miles away, to the corner of San Carlos Boulevard and Summerlin Road. Ramos-Williams says Torgerson has not addressed this issue to her stakeholders' satisfaction .

"The Pink Shell, DiamondHead, Matanzas Inn, Best Western, and Edison Beach House are some of the leading accommodations on the beach, and we need to make sure that people are going to be able to get to our businesses.

Looking at Torgerson's preliminary studies leaves a lot of unanswered questions. We need true traffic reports," she said.

"We don't want people to think we're attacking Torgerson or coming out against any development, but we do think the project is creating loopholes that Torgerson thinks is necessary to push his project through."

Like residents, the Voice is also very concerned over density increases sought by Grand Resorts. If all the properties that TPI owns were grouped together, the Comp Plan would only allow a maximum of 221 units to be built, and Torgerson is seeking approximately 500 units.

To address this matter, the Voice of FMB hired Beverly Grady from the law firm of Roetzel & Andress. Grady, a well known and respected land use planning attorney, has represented numerous clients involving development orders in Lee County and the Town of Fort Myers Beach. The Sun Bay Paper obtained a copy of the report she issued addressing the density increases.

Reading the report it's clear that Grady did a comprehensive review of both existing law and considered the legislative intent of citizens of FMB who originally drafted the Comp Plan.

"It is important to recognize that the citizens of Estero Island formed the Town of Fort Myers Beach. It is the citizens who came together to form a comprehensive plan to create and adopt a vision for the Town of Fort Myers Beach and to provide for community design and livability. From the inception of the Town, it has been recognized that transportation (traffic impact) is a major issue that affects the quality of life of the residents and also affects the business owners in the Town of Fort Myers Beach. Transportation will be a major consideration in any review of the impact of the proposed Grand Resorts plan. It appears from the publicly held meetings that Grand Resorts is proposing in excess of 500 guest units where today there exists 70 guest units (Pier View Hotel) and a handful of dwelling units. It appears that the Grand Resorts plan will include unquantified but substantial retail, restaurant, a 30,000 square foot conference center, and other commercial uses which would increase traffic impact. This land use analysis does not address transportation but recognizes that upon filing the application it will be a central issue to understand the impact being proposed by the Grand Resorts plan."

"We are opposed to this dramatically increased density," said Ramos-Williams, adding "We are of the opinion that the County, under no circumstances, should give public property away to a private developer. The true value of the park as an open use area for everyone is much higher than what will be reaped by a private development project."

Many residents have expressed to the Sun Bay Paper that they are worried the development will be fast tracked under their noses without adequate public input. They are not alone in this view.

"The project is becoming airborne. It's a slap in the face to the people who are going to be affected by it, Commissioner Frank Mann said recently addressing the Torgerson plans. "Talk about telegraphing your punches, it says we don't care about what people say," Mann added.

Concerns have also been raised that some public officials have broken rules to provide deference and show favoritism to Torgerson. Recently the local daily newspaper the NewsPress ran an investigative article calling Commissioner Larry Kiker to task for failing to keep logs of meetings - as required by law - with Torgerson and lobbyists regarding the proposed development. Since Torgerson is seeking the public park and the Commissioner would ultimately make that decision, many, like Mann, feel a "fix" may be in for the development. Kiker is a former Beach mayor and has extensive ties to the Island including close relationships with some sitting on the Town Council of FMB, the body that must review and approve the Grand Resorts' plan.
Kiker is reportedly under investigation by the FBI for real estate commissions received by a Realty company owned by Kiker and his wife, Paula Kiker who sold a parcel to Torgerson and just last week it was reported that the Lee County League of Women Voters have filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics at the State level in Tallahassee.

Grady, in her memorandum, noted that "extensive public input" was already given by "residents and business owners" in workshops called "Designing Our Town" that were part of writing the award-winning Comp Plan. Residents fear all that work is being forgotten.
According to Grady:

“The design principles of the Town Plan were adopted in the January 1, 1999 Comprehensive Plan and include Rejuvenate the existing fabric of the community, encouraging its special character without being stuffy, and treasuring the eclectic nature of the town’s physical structures through such means as: ... ... designed to promote compatibility of mixed land uses ... Changing the behavior of motorists through traffic calming ... Planning for interconnected streets and pedestrian paths ... Encourage private investment in the economic life, physical form, and natural amenities of the town, directing infill change and redevelopment toward the town’s vision through such means as: ... Strengthen views to the waterfront to promote a feel of shared use of these irreplaceable amenities. Establish clear and consistent rules governing both public and private sector development to integrate all of the pieces. These design concepts were developed by a planning firm retained by the Town in conjunction with extensive public input of the residents and business owners and workshops attended by the public in “Designing Our Town.”

Grady was also quite plain when it came to whether the added density, Torgerson seeks is compliant with the Comp Plan.

"There is no opinion expressed that the Subject Property is entitled to this intensity or density but rather provides a foundation to understand the maximum that could be arguably approved without amending the Town Plan or LDC. To convert commercial square footage as proposed by Grand Resorts to guest units without complying with the Land Development Code conversion of dwelling units to guest units would require a major amendment to increase the density in Pedestrian Commercial. Therefore, the total maximum guest units on the combined Subject Property is approximately 228 guest units," said the land use attorney in her memorandum.

While proponents of the development say Fort Myers Beach may lose a great opportunity to modernize its gateway area and expand available lodging for visitors, others fear the project may well end forever the essential character of what to many is the "last of the small, friendly Florida beach towns."

Doug Speirn-Smith, spokesperson for Matanzas on the Bay, and one of the founders of the Voice of FMB, has developed some alternative ideas on the Grand Resorts project. Here are some of his suggestions presented to readers unedited.

“Grand Resorts FMB is making a concerted effort to have Public Input into their development Vision. The recent updated plan had some minor clarifications and differences, but in many ways- it was more similar than different. The Gulf-front park/plaza window is a welcome addition, but the continued loss of Crescent Beach Park is a huge step backward. The plan has brought forward positive awareness on beach re-nourishment systems and new hope to a cleaned up “town center”, but the scale, density and traffic flow of such intensity is exactly what the Town’s Land Use plan is designed to protect the community from.

The good news is that many of the development elements can stand alone and should be reviewed in this manner. Here are some strategic considerations, in no particular order.

1. All of this scale and the site-plan is dictated because the plan squeezes lots of intensity on small limited access parcels that need parking that can only fit into a large parking garage. Even if it conceptually fits (which it barely does), is this really the development model that our community seeks? Is this progress? Are we moving from a human scale with convenient access versus an urban model with managed access through walkways and garages?

2. Crescent Beach Park: Take it off the table. Leave it as a community resource. Make access easy, make it user friendly to increase use. If development options are better if the parking lot parcel next to Sunset Grill gets switched with the south end of the park—do the property exchange. The updated plan does some of this with the new Gulf side park/plaza, but not enough. SW Florida has limited Beach access and maintaining the park is fundamental. The Park is a once in a lifetime opportunity to remain as a public resource.

3. Consider moving the density use on Crescent Park to the Plaza Site and ask for modest height variances on this parcel to make it happen along with great parking. The County should get a fair price for this density and public parking options due to Seafarers parcel that is part of the development mix.

4. Consider two different development applications. One for the property owned by the Developer and one that is for the Crescent Beach Park site, which should be fully in the Sunshine and marketplace, although having it off the plan is the preferred approach. (With or without some minor property exchanges).

5. Any building fronting Estero Blvd should be limited to the Code and anything higher than three floors over flood be setback a bit to soften view lines. All building facades need to be softened and broken up. No beach side building should be higher than code unless a true public benefit is offered. View corridors to the Gulf should be maintained- thus a “wall of Building” is changed to a village scale. The scale of the proposed streetscape is much too urban with no view or sun corridors.

6. Only a very pro-growth advocate could support the Grand Resorts plan. There should no meaningful community cooperation unless the public benefits are serious and these benefits are not possible without a cooperative plan that moderates this Grand Resorts Vision.

7. The county should use the Seafarers site to improve Estero Traffic flow if it will, but the road should be a clear shot and no building on the gulf-side of the new alignment (the straddling parking garage building has to go). The county should improve parking access to the park as part of the cooperative effort to improve Estero Blvd. Ground level park-side parking should be a goal.

8. Funding mechanisms for the Seawall proposal and all public benefits such as beach nourishment need to be specific and fair.Using incremental property taxes in a funding district is not the same as the developer funding the re-nourishment or a coastal protection seawall. If area-wide funding or incremental taxes are proposed, the cost/benefit should be clear. The word Blighted is a relative word but should not be used to expand development intensity that is not in the community’s best interests.

9. Armoring Seawalls may be done on an individual property basis. The key to any armoring system for FEMA zones is a re-nourishment plan with established funding to maintain the barrier. Re-nourishment without a seawall has many benefits for property owners and the community and a good beach is a “natural Boardwalk”. These are two different discussions and merits of both the CPS and beach re-nourishment plans should be carefully reviewed.

10. Ground floor commercial Estero Blvd expansion may not a Community priority but property storm protection is potentially useful. Ground floor commercial streetscapes can be interesting with public plazas, open air /covered flea markets/street cafes. Commercial expansion intensity, congestion and parking needs need to be a part of the review process. Old San Carlos Blvd. has been the visioning center of Downtown for a long-time.

11. Public access needs to be clear and unimpeded. The canal street access is important to everyone between Crescent and Palermo. A property exchange of similar size is an option. View corridors are critical to keep the scale of development reasonable.

12. Parking and vehicular access to any gulf-side development will have major impacts on Estero Blvd traffic flow. How the ground floors will access Estero and serve the development is critical to the project review. It’s hard to imagine traffic flow getting from the scale of this new development back onto Estero Blvd will help traffic flow.

So what will all of this look like?

A reasonable Scenario: In scale and a better town entry.

1. Height should favor the Plaza site. A stepped building wrapping the parking would be dramatic new Downtown Element in the right place. The increased density bought from the county park land would create size benefits. Any height variance should be limited to this parcel. Driving Estero Blvd. through a garage building should not be considered.

2. The Mermaid site and the Cigar Hut parcels could be developed in a coordinated way into a nice sized property. But it should be lower and less in density than proposed. Ground floor use is not essential, but a friendly streetscape is needed. Great public beach access similar to Canal Street should be maintained although a property exchange is possible.

3. For the Pierview Hotel site and the Crabby site and this could be made larger if necessary to allow a new second phase to the Pierview property with a park /Sunset Grill parking lot exchanged with the county. What is the potential for maintaining the Pierview Motel and adding a second phase next door in a coordinated style and scale?

4. If beach nourishment is a priority- an area wide plan can be developed. It is best to have the county and the TDC help with the costs. It is a regional resource. This is a good idea on its own.

5. If storm protection and FEMA is a priority – then the seawall can be priority for the community. It should not be used as justification to increase intensity or use of the Ground Floors and for the Parks- it is a nominal benefit. The wall without a beach re-nourishment plan is a disaster, but it sounds like it would not be permitted without.

6. All new development Gulf-side access to Estero Blvd needs to be carefully reviewed to ensure reasonable impact on traffic flow. Required left turns onto Estero Blvd should be nominal and specific.

If these approaches mean a bitless development, then parking need is less and traffic is less and open space is more- which is really what many in our community seem to prefer and the Land use plan was intended to facilitate.

It would have been really great and would have been greatly appreciated if the developer would show a plan that is more sensitive to the town scale and not just what they feel they are entitled to under some interpretation of a comprehensive plan and development code.

Finally, it is imperative our community leadership and elected officials and town staff serve the community with this application. Finding where the options and opportunities are will take thought and may not be presented by the developer. This is not about the need for three more resorts- it is about the very fabric of our future and who we wish to be and what it might look like. Each request in the permit process- whether for height, for parking, for density, for Right-of-way, for selling community parks etc. offers an opportunity for the community to create its own vision. Let’s not waste this moment.

Clear choices exist and true alternatives need to be created. No one is saying nothing- but a clear voice for difference needs to part of the review. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get it done best—sometimes less is more.”

Carl Conley and Trent Townsend

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