BY JOHN HEAGNEY - While compromise and cooperation are two inarguable cornerstones of effective governance, communication and caution play equally essential roles if public officials are to address the needs of the community at large.
This is particularly important when community residents have split into factions with agendas that stand in stark contrast to each other. Things can get ugly ... and ugly fast. But Wednesday morning, six members of the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board (BGHPG) demonstrated their ability to listen by voting unanimously that more study was needed before moving forward on the issue of Gilchrist Avenue median parking.
A controversy that has been a decade in the making, the question at hand is whether or not to permit parking on Gilchrist’s grassy median. Businesses, three churches, the Gasparilla Inn and the GICIA say yes. Gilchrist residents, historical preservationists and those concerned for public safety say no. The latter group submitted a plan to the county and received approval. The parking proponents have been urged repeatedly to submit its plan for review and have failed to do so.
Wednesday’s board vote did nothing to resolve the controversy or to make either side completely happy. However, it did provide a much needed cooling off period so more information can be gathered. That showed courage on the part of board members, given the strong feelings of both factions, who made the board meeting a standing-room-only affair at the Boca Grande Community Center.
At issue is whether or not the median should be considered a “historic resource” that could be protected from what one member of the anti-parking group calls “commercial exploitation of public land.”
The pro-parking group – represented by members of the business community, churches and the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce – seemed perfectly content to adopt permanent action without further discussion. They expected a decision. Then and there.
On a more inclusionary note, parking opponents said they can wait for the study’s completion so residents returning to the island in November can join the discussion. Several voiced concern that a decision would silence discussion by a great number of residents who already have left the island for the season. Moreover, one Gilchrist resident and parking opponent urged conciliation, even hinting that a compromise between opposing factions is quite possible, once all facts are known.
After public input and discussion, the board decided to delay any decision for now.
Although the board acted cautiously, it was the wise decision and one that will open debate to the largest possible audience. Some, however, wonder why Lee County officials have been conspicuously absent from such dialogue.
County Commissioner John Manning has told island residents on several occasions that the county wouldn’t act until a “consensus” is reached by those involved. This, despite the fact that a county ordinance clearly addresses what parking ... if any ... should be permitted on medians throughout the county. Of course, such statements beg the question: What other county ordinances require a “consensus” before being enforced?
Interim Lee County Attorney Andrea Fraser didn’t attend the meeting, and her surrogate – Assistant County Attorney John Fredyma – was scheduled to appear. But at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Fredyma informed the board he also couldn’t attend. He did, however, send a memo with an opinion about the historic resource issue:
“While I am not presently prepared to definitively tell the BGHPB (that the Gilchrist Avenue median) may be so designated, I am equally unwilling to tell the (BGHPB) that it may not.”
It is this perceived ambivalence by county officials that has some residents confused and others downright angry. Are county officials simply avoiding controversy or do they consider Boca Grande residents as forgotten stepchildren, too insignificant in numbers to worry about in the next county commission elections. Who knows?
One thing is certain. Everyone who lives in Boca Grande cares deeply about what happens here. What happens to the people. And certainly what affects the incomparable way of life this island represents.
That’s why so many island residents on both sides of the parking issue packed the board meeting earlier this week.
Some were concerned with convenient access to island businesses at the expense of Boca Grande’s reputation for natural beauty. Others worry that if large-scale parking is permitted on Gilchrist Avenue, it could be the first domino to fall in an island-wide parking war. Worst of all, they say, once we trade green spaces for parking spaces, they will be gone forever.
With off-island zoning calling for more than 140,000 homes, condos and apartments, the county seems disinclined to see what looms in Boca Grande’s future. Therefore, we must help ourselves by finding a solution ... not just for today, but for generations to come.
John Heagney, public relations and former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times
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