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… and the “road” ahead

May 24, 2012
By BOB PETCHER, , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The two are being linked like two lost brothers.

Whenever the former Seafarer's property is brought up in conversation or official discussion, Estero Boulevard is sure to be part of the exchange of views. What to do with one levitates to the other.

The latest authoritative dialogue occurred Wednesday evening, May 23, when Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah held a Town Hall Meeting at the Chapel by the Sea's Silver Hall to discuss the future of the Seafarers property on Estero Boulevard. The proposed usage is an at-grade parking lot (40 to 58 spots; reported $200,000 per year of revenue) for the short term, while the long-range plan is aimed at re-routing traffic and seeking alternative ways at relieving traffic congestion on Estero Boulevard during busier tourism months. There would be suggested shared revenue with the Town of Fort Myers Beach in that proposed action.

"It's a matter of timing and money," said Judah about the two plans.

The Beach district's commissioner reiterated the County's intention to work with the Town to alleviate concerns that people have expressed to use the property to exacerbate the gridlock and traffic congestion on Estero Boulevard. In the interim, an at-grade parking lot seems to be the only other usage for the time being.

"I realize that unfortunately we had not clearly conveyed the message as to the intent of what the County in conjunction with the Town of Fort Myers Beach wished to accomplish," said Judah about the purpose of the meeting.

The Seafarer's site was purchased as a package deal with the foreclosed property across the street for a combined cost of roughly $5.6 million ($900,000 for Seafarer site). The beachfront property was constructed into Crescent Beach Family Park, but the site across the street remains idle and an eyesore.

"Many of you already know that it was a distress sale. We had to buy both properties; it was a package deal," said Judah. Due to the use of County Tourist Development Council funding, the only option is to put ground-level parking at the site at this time, he pointed out.

A question-and-answer session followed Judah's presentation. When asked if the County would sell the Seafarer's site to the Town, he replied, "Yes."

During the Town Council meeting on May 21, Councilman Alan Mandel urged his fellow council members to make another play at acquiring the Seafarer's site. Town officials are looking into re-submitting an offer to County officials to purchase the property.

"That entire site should be developed for the highest and best use and include not only better traffic flow and better crossing facilities, but also an appropriate structural development down there that would probably have parking to the rear of the property as opposed to right on Estero Boulevard," he said.

A previous offer to purchase was turned down, according to Town Manager Terry Stewart.

"The Council authorized us to work together and negotiate with the County," he said. "Lee County was supposed to put together a negotiations team; we had ours. As I recall, Commissioner Judah brought some concerns back to the county commission about whether or not the site was actually suitable for a traffic solution. They deferred until they got some report back on that. A report never came, then at some point the county commission decided that they were not going to sell it."

Last Wednesday, Judah stated County officials are still reviewing paperwork for a rezoning process. The County commission must approve that document before it moves forward. Once the application is submitted, Town officials and attorney will review it and check if the site requires a rezoning (a 4- to 6-month process) or an amendment to the Town's Comprehensive Plan (a process that could take an excess of one year).

The County commissioner was joined by four Lee County officials: Transportation Director David Loveland, Construction & Design Manager Damon Grant, Principal Planner Michael Pavese and Estero Boulevard Project Coordinator Rob Phelan. Vice Mayor Bob Raymond, Councilman Alan Mandel and Town Manager Terry Stewart quietly represented the Town of Fort Myers Beach.

Grant explained the traffic routing of the proposed parking lot, which has not yet received a majority consensus from County commission, with ingress and egress means to the lot. He used a map to show how off-island visitors could access the lot. Instead of turning left onto Crescent Street from Estero Boulevard (a move that would add to congestion), a driver could follow appropriate directional signage and come off Matanzas Bridge, take a right onto North Estero Boulevard, a right onto Old San Carlos Boulevard, a right onto Third Street, a right onto Crescent Street, a right onto Fifth Street and access the lot that way.

"Will there be left turns directly into that parking lot? No, there wouldn't be, because that would be a nightmare," he said. "(The re-route plan) would require a lot of signage."

County has hired Fort Myers-based Morris-Depew Associates, Inc., an engineering/planning company, to look into traffic concerns with the at-grade parking proposal. The firm is also looking at benefits of shutting off left-hand turns onto Crescent Street.

Some residents stated they were leery about the re-route due to the narrow roads involved.

Loveland, who has done transportation planning for the County for 27 years, then explained the County's preliminary design study for Estero Boulevard and its assumption that the first phase ($7 million in proposed Capital Improvement Plan) would be one-mile in length beginning at the Lani Kai Resort and pushing northward in fiscal year 2013-14.

"We are moving forward with a preliminary design effort with the consultant," he said. "There have been a lot of different things to talk about for Estero Boulevard. There has never been much agreement between County and Town on what exactly is needed to fix the problem."

Another concern was the freestyle jaywalking that occurs especially on the northern half of the island. Many pedestrians are ignoring given crosswalks.

"To me, the biggest thing is to alleviate people crossing from probably Hooters north to the (traffic) light," said long-time Beach resident Louis Monaco. "Regardless of what you do, people are just going to walk across whenever they want. You need to have barriers (to discourage) the entourage all along that whole strip."

"The difficulty is going to be how do you do it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and, given all the driveways along there, how effective is it going to be," answered Loveland.

Former Councilman Tom Babcock encouraged County officials to look at previous traffic studies that the Town has paid for as well as Beach community visioning workshops.

"I'd rather see the time and money spent now to fix the real problem, even if pushes this Estero Boulevard project back a year," he said.

Other discussions involved flyovers, pedestrian overpasses, bicycle hazards along the boulevard, long-term mixed-use high-end commercial private/public partnership and a Florida Department of Transportation feasibility study for a dedicated trolley lane on San Carlos Boulevard.

In the meantime, if an at-grade parking lot is shot down, does the lot sit empty, abandoned and desolate at a coveted location at the foot of Fort Myers Beach?

"What are we going to do with Seafarer's? Are we going to let it sit there and look like Helmerich (Plaza)? Or do we look at it from a practical standpoint and let the County develop it? Let them improve it," said Beach business owner John Richard.

Judah agreed.

"At this point and time, I have to be completely honest with you. I don't see any other option than to let it sit empty," he said. "That's not desirable."

Town officials to react during upcoming workshop

Mayor Larry Kiker, citing Judah's upcoming Town Hall-style meeting, recommended scheduling a future work session on the matter. Vice Mayor Bob Raymond agreed.

"I think we have different ways that we would like to see that whole area re-developed. We need to discuss that at a workshop," he said.

Council will discuss the matter during a session on June 4, at 2 p.m.

Before the workshop was scheduled, Mandel reported he spoke to a potential developer for the Seafarer's site.

"He basically said he would entertain giving us a letter of intent to purchase it from us as part of the development there if we owned it," he said. "This property would give us control, and a number of people on the BOCC (county commission) would certainly like to seek something for the highest and best use (for that area)."



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