News- Press

Nov. 28, 2017

Rule change allowing Captiva mansion wins backing; lawyer says no 'backroom deal

By: Bill Smith

http://www.news-press.com/story/news/2017/11/27/rule-change-allowing-gulf-facing-mansion-wins-backing-lawyer-says-no-backroom-deal/897890001/

A divided Lee County advisory board has endorsed making changes in county development rules that would ease the way for construction of a million-dollar mansion on Upper Captiva.

On a 3-2 vote, the Local Planning Agency recommended an end to county regulations over the placement of septic tanks on the environmentally sensitive Gulf of Mexico coastline.

The landowner's attorney told the county planning agency his client did not go looking for special consideration, as neighbors and environmentalists criticized the speedy process of the rule change proposal after rejection of a building permit on the 75- by 233-foot parcel at 530 Gulf Lane.

"Don't be thinking that this is something that we somehow made a backroom deal with county commissioners about because that just didn't happen," said Fort Myers attorney Matthew Uhle, who represents the landowner. "It's not something that we pursued, it was the county's idea, it was not our idea."

The proposal to change the county development code sprang to life after the Oct. 17 denial of a building permit for the Upper Captiva property. 

The property owner, 530 North LLC, was organized by Diane Jarmoszuk, whose family has been involved in other county business ventures, including ownership of a large Pine Island palm tree farm.

A building permit application was denied because the site plan ran afoul of rules that prohibit building septic systems on the seaward side of the county coastal construction line.  Lee County prohibits building certain structures, including septic systems, on the seaside of the line.

County planning staff members say the rule puts them in a position of regulating septic tanks even though permits from the state environmental agency are required and granted after extensive review.

Septic tanks were added to the list of small structures prohibited outside the area where construction is allowed in 2005 during an earlier controversy over a proposed house on the site.

Uhle tried to shift the label of "special interest legislation" from his clients onto people who want to keep the septic tank ban on the books, suggesting the ban was itself imposed to help people who don't want the house built.

"The special interest legislation ...  is not in front of you today, it is the legislation that was adopted in 2005," Uhle said. "It's not something that we pursued, it was the county's idea, it was not our idea." 

Opponents criticized the fast track that saw the proposal reaching the planning agency less than six weeks after denial of the building permit.

Rae Ann Wessel, the natural resource policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said the change is "being rushed along at a pace that doesn't serve anyone's interest other than the applicant."

Wessel said that over 39 years in Florida she has seen sea level induced changes in coastal contours and warned that septic tanks near the coast could fall victim to further erosion.

"We are talking about a barrier island that is undergoing an accelerated process of erosion." Wessell said. "You are changing the design of how the sea and wave action is impacting the front lines of our coast."

Planning agency chair Noel Andress questioned the speed of the proposed change and why arguments supporting the amendment were based on a single parcel. 

“We’re not talking this isolated incident here,” Andress said. “We’re talking about changes in policy that affects all of the coastal areas of the entire county and we don’t know what unintended consequences we will face.”

On the other side of the issue, member Gary Tasman countered that the septic rule was first imposed more than a decade ago specifically to stop construction at the site.

“That was directly related to this property and not any other property owner,” said Tasman, who said he favors protecting the private property rights of the landowner.

By a 3-2 vote, the planning agency members approved transmitting the proposed change to county commissioners. The commission will hold public hearings on the proposal before voting on whether to make the change.