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ISLAND ISSUES: County manager looks to help SCI

October 2, 2013
By BOB PETCHER - , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

New County Manager Roger Desjarlais isn't making any promises, but he is willing to inquire from within his own governmental entity to see if San Carlos Island can receive help regarding certain issues brought forth during a recent Town Hall meeting at Bonita Bills Waterfront Cafe?at 700 Fisherman's Wharf.

Desjarlais and Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker were guest speakers of the meeting and, along with meeting panel spokeswoman Joanne Semmer, discussed issues pertaining to the working waterfront island separating the mainland and Estero Island.

Seven issues were brought forth and, while some were addressed, some others were logged and participants were told answers would come in the near future.

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New County Manager Roger Desjarlais and Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker were guest speakers at a San Carlos Island Town Hall meeting at Bonita Bills Waterfront Cafe? last week.

The first issue discussed was the need to refurbish the island's "Welcome to San Carlos Island" signs. Semmer asked if funds could be secured through county resources and department partnerships. It was stated there are easements for the four signs and $1 million in liabilities are carried for them as well.

"San Carlos Island is a designated waterfront community. We were one of the first in the state of Florida in 1995," she said. "They have held us up as an example. They have had speakers in other workshops, like a speaker from NOAA in Miami, talk about how great San Carlos Island is and what we have been able to accomplish as a community."

Semmer said when SCI was first designated, it received a $25,000 grant to pay for the "Welcome to San Carlos Island" signs. The signs have aged and are in need of refurbishing.

Desjarlais recommended SCI should look for "a local government sponsor to help draw down grant dollars from a number of different state and federal agencies." County government is still recovering from a $34 million deficit and is cutting back on funding such expenses.

"I will find out if we can help you do that," he said.

While Kiker stated he has been in office for 10 months now, Desjarlais has been manager since July 1.

He and Semmer attended Cypress Lake High School at the same time.

Desjarlais then provided an update on a proposed trolley lane on San Carlos Boulevard. There has been talk about a center lane for only trolley usage on the five-lane boulevard.

"Florida Department of Transportation has funded a $1.2 million study in their 5-year work plan to do the project development and environmental study for a trolley lane," he said. "There will be a series of stakeholder meetings, and they are working through the Metropolitan Planning Agency to do that. In fiscal year 2014-15, they will spend the money and figure it out."

Semmer stated she doesn't know anyone in favor of the proposed trolley lane and called it a "total waste of money." Other residents chimed in in agreement.

"If that road cannot be widened to add another lane for the trolley, they are going to take away one of the lanes that all the residents and workers on both islands need," said Beach resident Bob Beasley. "That's a total disaster."

"It seems like this is the fourth or fifth study for pretty much the same thing," said another meeting attendee.

Kiker, former Beach mayor and a Beach resident, stated all parties involved will need to come together.

"At some point in time, Fort Myers Beach, San Carlos Island and other stakeholders will have to get together to figure out what you are going to do together," he said.

The next issue discussed was trying to establish a ground lease for Ostego Bay Foundation Marine Science Center on a 5-acre parcel on the San Carlos Island Maritime Park property, directly behind AMIkids Southwest Florida school at 1190 Main St. and in front of Trico Shrimp Company.

"We started trying to get a lease on that property in 1991, but when Florida Gulf Coast University came here there was an incentive package where the County agreed to give them a wider piece of property on the island for a marine science center," Semmer said. "Now, they have a facility in Bonita Springs, so they don't need that property. So, we are asking the County for a two-year ground lease so we can try to go out and find the funds to build a center."

Semmer showed Desjarlais a development order that shows Ostego Bay Foundation has been approved to be on the site. He said he would look into it.

"We cannot go out and write grants unless we have a commitment on the land," said Semmer.

For years, San Carlos Island residents and business people have lamented about the disrepair of the road on Main Street on the southeast side of the island. Between potholes, ruts, blocked storm grates and a need for a widening project, Main Street faces challenges from restaurant and other business patron vehicles and food, beverage and fuel trucks as well as resident vehicles. That issue was discussed in detail.

Desjarlais said he would speak to officials from the Lee County Department of Transportation about fixing road disrepair.

Semmer then brought up the issue of reinvesting portions of impact fees from San Carlos Island on San Carlos Island. Unfortunately, SCI is lumped into the County's Southwest District, along with much of the Iona area.

"Right now, there are $467,000 collected in that account," said Desjarlais. "Impact fee dollars have to be used to improve capacity, which means move more cars. San Carlos Island has to compete with other projects on the five-year capital improvement project list."

Due to the economy and slow times for the construction industry, impact fees are hard to come by.

"We used to collect millions and millions of impact fee dollars based on new development. But, we don't collect nearly the dollars that we used to, so we are very limited," said Desjarlais. "In fact, we are looking for alternative funding sources for road projects in general."

The gateway to both San Carlos Island and Fort Myers Beach is in need of a makeover. Many believe the lack of landscaping of San Carlos Boulevard leads to an eyesore for those driving to the waterfront islands. Palm trees used to line the boulevard but grew too tall and affected the electricity lines.

"An ingress into an area should be beautiful," said resident Betty Goodacre.

Semmer believes there is some County funding left for the boulevard. Desjarlais said he would have to inquire about that.

When asked if SCI could become a Community Redevelopment Agency, Desjarlais gave a quick 'no' reply.

"The board would have to say 'no,' but I am going to recommend 'no,'" he said.

Kiker stated a CRA actually frees the tax base, which allows money to come back to the district.

"The problem with that is if (all communities) want to become a CRA, we have zero control of what is going on with the tax base," he said. "Even though it seems like it's advantageous to a certain area, most of the time it is not. Most of the CRAs get dissolved."

There are some SCI residents in favor of the creation of a San Carlos Island Special Improvement District, a special way that islanders can tax themselves in order to perform improvements. If interested and approved upon internally, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners can discuss the issue and allow community members to vote on it to see if it yields a majority (51%) agreement.

"We already have a San Carlos Island Lighting District," said Semmer. "There is an opportunity to expand on that to do other improvements like landscaping, signs and things like that. If its accepted and a board is appointed, the board makes decisions on how its going to tax itself, establish certain goals and get some things done."

During a Q&A session, a question was posed about public access to the County boat ramp on San Carlos Island. One issue about that site is there is no parking available for those who put in their boats.

"We have no need for parking. We just want to launch our boats," said one attendee, who stated volunteers are willing to upkeep the site.

Desjarlais will consider it but was skeptical due to people parking vehicles along the right-of-way near the ramp. He stated he would visit the site after the meeting.

"Every public boat ramp that we have has parking. It is hard to believe that would work well for the neighborhood," he said.

Another question was related to the use of the former Compass Rose Marina. There were hopes County could purchase it for perhaps a boat ramp or just parking.

Yet another question centered on what is known as the "Ebb Tide Project." Beasley, the project manager, stated the project has been approved for 271 condominiums (which will replace 271 RV sites) on the bay side, and an up-to 450 unit hotel.

"Part of the approval of our agreement is to bring up Main Street from a level "F" to a level "A," he said. "That means drastic improvements, probably sidewalks bike paths and landscaping. We don't know how soon (the development) will be built. It's economy-driven. We're probably looking at a 3- to 5-year window."

It was stated the road will be brought up to County standard, but that standard does not call for increasing the capacity of Main Street.



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