May 25, 2016
San Carlos Islanders fight for working waterfront
By Patricia Borns
For years Jack Maher has been trying to get a redevelopment project going on the dusty San Carlos Island site of hurricane-wrecked Compass Rose Marina.
But the density and intensity of Maher’s plans for Bay Harbour Marina Village on the landward side of Main Street are so controversial that a third day of rezoning hearings wasn’t enough.
San Carlos Island’s waterfront on a federally maintained shipping channel is a kaleidoscope of commercial and working waterfront uses – including the state’s largest shrimp fleet -- peppered with small clusters of single-family and mobile homes.
Bay Harbour’s plan presents unique challenges to Lee County policies in its interpretation of density and how mixed used sites should be designed – so much so that a group of some 20 residents pitched in for legal counsel to fight it.
What makes Bay Harbour Marina Village unique
It’s not unusual for a development to combine residences with amenities like a restaurant or bar, a marina and boat storage. But Bay Harbour proposes to combine them into a monolithic structure on a scant 8 acre parcel.
The development features:
• 14-stories with 75 market-rate residences and 38 workforce housing units
• 30,000 square feet commercial and storage space
• Marina with 286 dry boat storage barn and 29 wet slips, open to public
• Ship’s store, swimming pool and restaurant
• Public plaza, green rooftop with picket ball and bocce ball courts
• About 500 indoor/outdoor parking spaces, 200 for public use.
Most of this is packed into a multi-use building that butts up against intense industrial uses and mobile homes, with minimal buffers and transitions.
“It’s 20 pounds in a 10-pound sack,” said planner-architect Joe McHarris, who spoke against the project on behalf of the owners of Ebbtide, a Main Street resort project that was approved in 2009 on 36 acres.
Known for being plain-spoken, if not blunt, McHarris, who’s also on the Village of Estero design review board, said what many residents feel about the plan – “It’s too big and ugly” – but with planning chops to explain the issue.
Bay Harbour doesn’t have enough room to “terrace” its design, he said. That is, it goes from 0 to 175 feet without “stepping down its design in relation to the surrounding area.”
One hundred seventy-five feet is about twice as high as the Matanzas Bay bridge, but unlike the bridge, the Bay Harbour tower and boat barn are a solid mass directly in front of people’s 35-foot-high homes.
In a novel use of a small development parcel, Bay Harbour’s planners designed the rooftop as a multi-use green recreation area to satisfy the requirement for open space.
“That’s double-dipping,” McHarris said. “You put a building on the ground, which by definition makes it not open space. Now you say the rooftop can be the open part? Imagine what would happen to open space in Lee County if that precedent is set.”
Over 50 residents sign letter in favor
Joseph Billers, who followed his father into the shrimping industry, said developments like Bay Harbour are needed to replace a dying waterfront industry. “Shrimping is dying. Tourism is the new economy,” Billers said.
John Wicker, a local attorney, entered into the record a letter on behalf of 51 residents who support Bay Harbour for similar reasons: to remove blight and provide new housing options.
Supporters also cited the dearth of affordable term rentals for island service workers, and praised Bay Harbour’s workforce housing units, whose monthly rents starting at $1,500 target workers earning $56,000 a year, or a family of four earning $80,000.
The rentals will win Bay Harbour 38 units of bonus density if approved. Lee County's Pine Island Plan recently allowed developers the workforce housing bonus specifically to fill the need for barrier island service workers.
But neither Lee staff who award the incentive, or the project’s opponents, challenged the appropriateness of the rents for the workers, many of whom earn 50 percent below median income and work seasonally or part-time.
Density challenge expected
Bay Harbour and its opponents tussled over whether density can be increased in a coastal high hazard area, which San Carlos Island’s waterfront is.
Bay Harbour is asking for 113 residences on a site where there were zero. Its land use has until now been industrial waterfront.
“That’s a huge increase,” McHarris said.
“Staff is ignoring increasing density in the coastal high hazard area as a matter of public policy, even though Ebbtide was held to that,” said attorney Ralf Brookes, who represents residents opposed to the development.
Ebbtide’s plan for a 450-room resort, convention center, marina and esplanade of eateries and retail is as or more intense than Bay Harbour’s. But it’s on 36 acres, and it’s replacing 271 existing homes – trailer homes – one for one with new tower residences.
“We asked for more density and were refused,” McHarris said.
Bay Harbour’s planners argued the Lee plan recognizes density or intensity must be increased to encourage redevelopment. A light hand is suggested but not required, they said.
A public safety issue
If Bay Harbour’s density paradigm succeeds, it opens the door to similar projects replacing island mobile home tracts.
Such density has been discouraged on the islands up to now for public safety.
The evacuation time in a hurricane shouldn’t exceed 16 hours by state law, but it’s currently 84 hours for Lee County, the hearing examiner noted.
“Hurricanes don’t give 78 hours’ warning,” Brookes said. “People in Hurricanes Rita and Katrina died in their cars while trying to evacuate.”
Another River Hall battle?
Brookes, who also represents residents of Alva’s River Hall, promised to challenge the comprehensive plan amendment Bay Harbour is seeking almost simultaneously with the zoning change.
“River Hall challenged the legality of a density increase in a comprehensive plan amendment that was also a concurrent situation,” Brookes said. “There, like Bay Harbour, the zoning request was heard before the amendment, which was challenged.”
Brookes said ideally the plan amendment should be heard first. Doing it backwards, or concurrently as it’s called, means the comp plan amendment gets less staff attention and less public participation, he said.
All sides acknowledge Bay Harbour’s proposal isn’t compatible with today’s Lee plan.
Even if the developer’s request for mixed-use zoning is approved, it will only prevail if its comprehensive plan amendment is approved.
If River Hall is an indication, San Carlos Island residents wishing to balance progress with island plan values are in for a long hall.
A fourth hearing day is scheduled for June 17 at 9 a.m. in the examiner’s courtroom at 1500 Monroe Street, Room 218 in downtown Fort Myers.
Follow this reporter on Twitter @PatriciaBorns.