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Cape gears up for $60 million parks referendum

June 21, 2018
Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The playground at Paul Sanborn Park attracted a range of families late Wednesday afternoon.

A pair of toddlers, under the watchful eye of a couple of dads, scrambled up the "big kids" jungle gym.

Three elementary schoolers - two boys zooming on scooters, one little girl running afoot - played tag across the basketball courts.

An older couple walked their dogs around the shady foot path while a 20-something guy in athletic wear did backward situps while sitting on a picnic table bench.

Cape Coral voters will be asked this November whether they are willing to tax themselves more to pay for these types of amenities - and a whole lot more- as the municipality brings forth a $60 million bond proposal to fund a citywide parks plan officials say is sorely needed.

Spurring the referendum placed on the ballot by the Cape Coral City Council this week is a 124-page Parks Master Plan adopted in December 2016.

That plan looks to make up what officials say is a deficit in almost every recreation-related category from small "neighborhood" parks like the Paul Sanborn to community and regional parks with amenities like amphitheaters, sports fields, tennis and pickleball courts, centers geared towards seniors or youths, boat docks, boat ramps, trails and more.

If approved by the voters, that master plan, as is or with modifications to be considered in the wake of council's 5-2 vote on Monday, would be paid for through the issuance of $60 million in General Obligation bonds. The debt would be paid back over 15 years with a bump in property taxes - .36 mills, or 36 cents per $1,000 of taxable assessed property valuation to start - with possible declines to .17 mills over the life of the bond if valuations continue to increase as projected.

With the elected board's split vote raising some concerns and two new projects vying for space in the plan, city staff now has the summer to hone the final details for Council -and voter - consideration in advance of the fall General Election.

"Our intent is to bring together the stakeholders for one or two more meetings to continue the discussion on the parks master plan and how the proposed projects that are in the existing master plan integrate with the property known as the old golf course," city spokesperson Connie Barron said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "The parks master plan, obviously, identifies all of the projects we would anticipate funding with the GO bond proceeds."

The city is negotiating to purchase a 175-acre parcel in the South Cape that once served as a golf course.

The asking price is $12 million for the land. Staff has placed a $13.5 million development plan on the table which would meet some of the needs in the 2016 document but the development of that site is not contained in that master plan.

Also on the table and referred to the stakeholders group put together by City Manager John Szerlag is a $9.5 million open-to-the public sports complex to serve the city's municipal charter school system. The Oasis Sports Complex is not in the existing master plan, either.

"Some on Council have asked staff to look at the possible inclusion of these projects," Barron said. "How do these projects integrate?"

Staff's direction, and goal, is to have a defined plan by August, well in time for the November election.

"Our main objective is to have a very clear list of projects that will be funded if the voters do approve the GO bond," Barron said. "We want to bring Council a proposed plan that would incorporate the projects that are identified in the parks master plan as well as the golf course property and just determine what particular activities, what particular facilities, what particular amenities.

"We've got a good parks master plan is the bottom line with some very good projects in there," she said, adding that the plan was developed with significant public input. "We want the community to know what they are voting on. We want that information out ahead of time. We want to show exactly where those dollars are going. We want voters to have complete assurance that if they approve the bonds, these will be the projects done over the next five to 10 years."

The parks plan has been inching forward since August 2016 when the then-sitting city council got the first analysis report followed by a draft master plan.

That plan outlined findings, potential small and major projects, priorities, costs and a timeline to achieve the plan's primary goal: to "enhance the quality of life in Cape Coral by developing a system of public parks, recreational facilities and open space which meets the needs of present and future generations," in a city the report found was sorely lacking what is needed for even its existing population.

Using the standard in the city's own comprehensive plan, the Cape benchmark is 8.5 acres of park land per 1,000 residents divvied up specifically as 4 acres of regional park land for every 1,000 residents; 2 acres per 1,000 residents for community park land; 2 acres per 1,000 for neighborhood park land and half an acre per 1,000 residents for specialty parks, such as athletic fields, environmental parks, golf courses and aquatic facilities.

With a population of 175,229 as of 2015, the city of Cape Coral owns and operates 43 parks and recreational facilities, about 829 acres, total. That breaks down to one regional park, Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve, 365 acres; two community parks, Lake Kennedy and the Yacht Club, totaling about 59 acres with six of the city's nine indoor rec facilities; 10 neighborhood parks, totaling 59.65 acres; and the largest single component, 23 speciality parks totaling about 346 acres, or about 74 percent of the city's total park land.

Using those numbers, Cape Coral is deficient in every category except speciality parks, lacking 660 acres in total park acreage as of 2015 with a projected need of 2,570 more needed at buildout when the Cape's population will be about 400,000, the report conducted by Barth & Associates states.

In the firm's analysis for indoor recreation, the numbers are, perhaps, even more challenging. The city has 88,302 square feet of indoor recreation space, meaning it is 174,542 square feet short of the 2015 benchmark of 264,844. The buildout benchmark is cited at 600,000 square feet.

Add in the need for additional bike and jogging paths and various parks improvements - everything from swing sets to swimming pools - and the Cape is looking at a multi-million dollar initiative city officials say can be achieved over the next decade with voter approval of the $60 million GO bond.

Councilmember John Carioscia, who voted with the Council majority to bring the bond proposal to the voters, said the need is great and voters are really being asked a simple question.

"Either we want a city that has parks that will be most useful to the children and the families or we don't," he said.

Requests for more recreational facilities is one of the more common he receives.

He cited three examples, one from residents who live in the neighborhood around Sands Boulevard, the others from older residents passionate about pickleball -?they want more courts - and pet owners, who want more dog parks,

On his wish list?

"One of the things I'm pushing for is an outdoor amphitheater," he said. "It doesn't have to be huge and it doesn't have to be open late."

Carioscia said he's not talking about a major venue for things like rock concerts but a smaller-scale facility on-scale with the 3,000-seat outdoor theater in Pompano Beach for "lighter performances." The possible location would be the golf course acreage.

He has confidence that staff will hammer out the details in time for an informed voter decision in the Nov. 6 General Election and so is not concerned that all the details are not yet in.

"Specifics, at this point in time, aren't going to be important to me," Carioscia said. "We have the parks, we have the locations. The question is, what are we going to put in them, that's important to me."

Councilmember David Stokes who, along with Councilmember Marilyn Stout voted against putting the referendum on the ballot, took a different view: The lack of details and the bond amount itself are both cause for concern.

"The only details I got were they were going to spend $5 million on land, $5 million on parks aesthetics. That's not enough for me to approve a $60 million deal," Stokes said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

"My suggestion on Monday night was to put this on hold until next year so we would know what, exactly to the penny, the money was going to be spent on. I also thought the $60 million was too much money."

Specific concerns included the possible inclusion of the two new, very expensive projects and their potential impact on the master plan.

"It didn't include development of the golf course - $12 million for the land and $13.5 to develop, and $9 million for Oasis," he said, adding that's a potential $34.5 million for those two projects alone.

That's also not including the estimated $3 million in additional annual costs for maintenance of new facilities contained in the plan, he added.

"All this is, I think, is too much spending," Stokes said. "I will be asking they (staff) be a lot more fiscally prudent in this plan, that the residents get more bang for the buck. I want them to be very detailed in what will be in the plan, more detailed down to the penny so the voters will know what they are voting on."

Ultimately, it is the voters who will decide, city officials agreed.

"The vote will send a message and we will spend accordingly," Carioscia said.



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