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PARKING DILEMMA: Sell 216 Connecticut St., residents say

June 11, 2014
By BOB PETCHER ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Is a proposed Mound House off-site parking lot a commercial intrusion?

Neighborhood residents of a town-owned empty parcel off of Connecticut Street are not warming up to the idea of a parking lot -even with the latest suggestion of its main focus being a passive park with a landscaping barrier/buffer- being proposed there.

Beach Mayor Anita Cereceda, who resides in that neighborhood, has been trying to convince her fellow neighbors that the designed over-flow lot for Mound House parking at 216 Connecticut St. would be useful. The latest plea came at a stakeholders meeting Wednesday evening at Newton Park.

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The town-owned empty parcel at 216 Connecticut St. has been in past discussions for Mound House off-site, overflow parking, due to the on-site lot being limited. Neighborhood residents are not in favor of any parking plan and request that Town officials sell the property.

The William H. Case House is currently being restored to its 1921 grandeur. It is Estero Island's oldest standing structure that sits on an ancient Calusa Indian Mound. Tours are conducted three times a week. More tours are expected once the full property is open.

"What I envision there is a park with some overflow parking that is exclusively used and gated for the Mound House only," said Cereceda, who provided a site plan sketching. "(I would like to see) mature plantings that would not make the area obtrusive, that would shield cars, that would create a park-like atmosphere for the Shell Mound (Boulevard) area."

Roughly 30 of 150 neighborhood residents, who were sent hand-written invitations, attended the meeting. After an hour-long presentation and more discussion, many of those attendees were adamantly opposed to the idea and requested that Town officials sell the property.

According to FMB Planning Coordinator Josh Overmyer and the Town's future land-use map, the property is currently in the recreation category, which allows the maximum density of residential development to be one dwelling unit per 20 acres, with all units to be constructed outside this category. It is in the residential conservation zoning district and zoned for single-family and duplex dwelling types.

The property was said to be purchased in 2003, tax-exempt, roughly 265-feet deep, roughly 80-feet wide and currently assessed in value at $185,000. It was purchased due to lack of sufficient and available parking at Mound House property. Currently, there are about eight spaces for vehicles at Mound House, and the Town lot was proposed to accommodate 15 to 27 more.

Cereceda was on the first Beach Council that purchased the Mound House and serves as the Council liaison to the Cultural and Environmental Learning Center Advisory Board that oversees the historical property at the end of Connecticut Street.

"My promise was that I would either come up with a plan that was palatable and acceptable to you all or we sell it," she said.

Attending residents appeared to disagree with the concept of a commercial lot in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It was called an intrusion and fears of the Town rezoning it to have other commercial uses there in the future were voiced. Other concerns were about property rights taken away and the buses that use Connecticut Street, drop off Mound House visitors and park in front of some of the homes on the road.

Currently, the Town has a lease contract with Beach Baptist Church (corner of Estero Boulevard and Connecticut Street) for an area of its extensive lot for overflow parking.

With Mound House scheduled for an opening this fall/winter, the need to accommodate potential visitors with viable parking is great. Expectations have an average of 50 visitors/vehicles each day.

"The Mound House is going to open no matter what we do," said Cerecda.

Residents wondered why such a large property site at the historical grounds couldn't provide more parking. Due to archaeological stipulations during the acquisition of the property with Florida Communities Trust funds, more parking could not be added to the main site. There are also Department of Environmental Protection agency concerns about parking along the mangrove bayside.

Even with the expected Mound House opening, there were questions of the Mound House not being financially sustainable.

"It is totally unsustainable," said one resident. "In order for the Mound House to survive, you need to have permanent parking for at least 200 cars."

Barbara Anderson Hill, the chair of CELCAB who has credentials about museum operations, management and programs, called Mound House an "amazing treasure" that can be financially sustainable.

"'There was always the idea there would be support from the Town, community, fundraisers and individual donations. State funding is available as well for operating," she said.

While residents voiced their concerns, the truth is Council could still approve to rezone the lot to commercial planned development for the passive park with Mound House overflow parking and a shell surface. The approval would be contingent upon a Local Planning Agency hearing and a Council hearing, both with public input. Limitations and conditions could be placed on that rezoning through a schedule of uses.

"Once you open Pandora's box, you cannot close it," said Connecticut Street resident Robin Driskill. "To me that lot is Pandora's box. Every Council changed what is going to happen (at the Mound House)."

In April, Cereceda told Council that she mentioned the neighborhood improvement concept to the area residents.

"In our comp(rehensive) plan, it says that we should increase green space. I see this as an opportunity to increase green space," she said earlier. "I think it is a little insulting to be spending money every single month, every single year at the baptist church to basically not deal with an issue that is already at hand. Specifically, for those neighbors, it is unfair because they don't have a reasonable expectation of what's going to happen there. That is unacceptable."

In April, Town Attorney Derek Rooney stated it would take some time to develop a new zoning category for the Town of Fort Myers Beach.

"I looked over the concerns raised by the neighbors in the minutes of the Local Planning Agency meeting," he said then. "While I don't think any of them can be thrown out, I think they can all be dealt with by putting a more detailed plan together."

Attending area residents have shown they are not receptive to a renewed plan, so the Town may put the parcel up for sale.

"I think people would be delighted if you took it off the tax rolls and sold the property," said Stilwell earlier.

Now, Cereceda will provide Council with another report.

"I certainly will represent to the Town Council that the neighbors feel they have been lied to, betrayed, encroached upon, bothered, property-wise devalued, property rights taken away. I will tell them all of that," she said. "We will see what they do with it."



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