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Lines drawn by town council candidates at forum

March 4, 2020
By NATHAN MAYBERG (nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Seven candidates for three open seats on the Fort Myers Beach Town Council drew distinctions among themselves at a forum held in the meeting room of St. Raphael's Episcopal Church on Feb. 26 in front of about 100 people.

Dune walkover

No single issue separated the candidates more than the proposed dune walkover at 8150 and 8170 Estero Boulevard adjacent to the Little Estero Island Critical Wildlife Area. The owners of the properties have been attempting for several years to get approval to construct a 298-foot dune walkover which would cross the water and vegetation.

The town council voted 3-2 in November, and again in February against granting a special exception to the town code for the walkover in the town's environmentally critical zone. Two of the councilmembers who voted against the walkover will be vacating their seats (Mayor Anita Cereceda due to term limits and Councilmember Joanne Shamp by choice).

The Local Planning Agency approved the walkover by a 7-0 vote with town council candidates Dan Allers and Jim Atterholt among those voting in favor.

At the recent council candidate forum, Allers said the applicants brought to the town council "information that I think we need to look into a little bit more."

Allers said "there is a potential for losing the Critical Wildlife Area if they decide to litigate it." The candidate said "there is still room for negotiation" with the applicants for the dune walkover.

"I am concerned about the litigation risk for the town" regarding the Critical Wildlife Area, said Atterholt.

Atterholt said the applicants have spent a lot of money on legal counsel. Their threatened challenge to the formation of the Critical Wildlife Area could cause a "legal free-for-all as to what occurs next," Atterholt said. "I don't know that's going to happen but that's a litigation risk we have to take seriously and make sure our legal position is solid before we proceed and we should proceed cautiously on this."

Robert Burandt, an attorney who represented Fort Myers Beach for 10 years and whose clients have also included the City of Fort Myers, said "I don't support the theory that we have to run because somebody threatened litigation."

Burandt said he doesn't support the walkover. He said if there are any issues with the formation of the Critical Wildlife Area, he said "we can do a lot of different things" to address it.

"I'm not one for running from a fight just because they said they've got legal counsel," Burandt said. He said establishing a bad precedent by giving into the applicants over the walkover "would worry me more than how the area was formed."

For Billy Veach, the dune walkover is not even a dune walkover. "This is a bridge over the lagoon before the dune," he said. "This is not a dune walkover by intent and it's not a dune walkover by design."

Veach said he wouldn't back down from protecting the Critical Wildlife Area over a planned lawsuit. "Running away from a fight is going to lead to more fights," he said. Veach called it a "real mistake to cower anytime somebody threatens a lawsuit."

Forrest Critser said a walkover near the Critical Wildlife Area would take away from the ambience of the beach. "I know they (the applicants) talk about nesting birds that they are not in the critical wildlife (area), they are on the edge of it, well the birds don't know where the edge is."

David Drumm also opposed the walkover. "I don't see a public benefit," he said.

Councilmember Bruce Butcher, who has voted twice in favor of allowing the dune walkover, did not comment on the question regarding the walkover, during the forum.

Lights

The candidates largely support adding new lights on Estero Boulevard though the specifics on how that should be done is still an open question. The purchase of new lights to improve driver and pedestrian safety on Estero Boulevard has stalled due to concerns about the impact of white LED lights being too bright and whether they would also interfere with turtle nesting.

"I'm the light guy," said Butcher, who has been pushing for white LED lights. "This has been a passion of mine since we had the accidents down at Santini Plaza in 2013." He believes the white lights can be fitted with shields to avoid the perceived drawbacks. Other alternatives, he said, will require a "very expensive solution," he said.

"I'm amazed it's taken so long," Burandt said. "Let's find someone to get the work done and get it done."

Atterholt, who was the chairman of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, said the town should be putting pressure on Florida Power & Light and the state's public service commission to obtain better lighting options.

Bay Oaks

On an expansion of Bay Oaks Recreational Campus: "We have to be a little careful. We're a small town. We can't keep piling on debt without thinking about it," Veach said.

Butcher said the current plans "looks very expensive to me."

Drumm said the town should be "cautious" expanding Bay Oaks with a diminishing school-age population. "We might be throwing our money away," he said.

Critser said he supported building an amphitheater at the Bay Oaks campus.

Other issues

On Margaritaville, most of the candidates support it though Burandt said the town's water system will be tested, leading to potential water pressure issues. He said he was not in favor of trading public land to a private developer as was done for Margaritaville. He called that "contract zoning," one of the allegations set forth by Chris Patton in her suit against the town and TPI.

Also, Burandt asked, "Have you thought about what it's going to do to your traffic?"

Allers said he is "100 percent for it (Margaritaville)."

On the issue of water quality, Burandt said "somebody should have went to jail" for the red tide scourge the town went through in 2018. "There is nothing worse than looking at your backyard and seeing dead fish all over."

Atterholt said the town needs to "keep the pressure on" the state to make sure it maintains its current course regarding releases from Lake Okeechobee.

On the issue of town fines in relation to code enforcement, Atterholt said the town's approach to code enforcement needs to be less "adversarial."

Butcher said code enforcement was important in protecting FEMA standards.

The public can see the candidates talk about the issues again at the "Commotion by the Ocean" at the Beach Baptist Church on March 5. Read this week's Observer for more details.

 
 

 

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