BY MARCY SHORTUSE - The room may have been filled to overflowing at the Wednesday, May 7 Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board meeting to discuss parking on Gilchrist Avenue, but the controversy level stayed to a minimum.
In an apparent attempt to honor the old saying, “love thy neighbor” (residents of Gilchrist Avenue have even named their plan as such), there was little dissension in the room, and one of the leading voices in the parking dispute even admitted there might be a compromise at hand.
“We’re not too far apart on plans, we’re going to come together at some time,” said Gilchrist Avenue resident Bob Fletcher. “I don’t think there’s a plan out there that I’ve seen that will be approved by everybody. We need to have workshops and public hearings on this matter first.”
The two leading plans up for discussion right now are the Gilchrist resident’s “Love Thy Neighbor” plan, which features parallel parking along the median and new landscaping, and the “Community Plan,” which features pull-in parking and new landscaping. So far, public favor seems to be leaning toward the Community Plan, created through agreement with the Gasparilla Inn & Club, The Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce, the three Gilchrist Avenue churches and local business owners.
The possibility of historic designation was on the agenda at the meeting, and Lee County Principal Planner Gloria Sajgo read an email from John Fredyma, assistant Lee County attorney. He asked that the board not approve the motion to begin the process of obtaining a designation report for Gilchrist Avenue, as there is no precedent in Lee County’s history of giving historical designation to a median strip.
“I believe it is premature at this time to consider a motion to initiate the process of designating Gilchrist Avenue as a historic resource under Chapter 22 of the land development code,” Sajgo read. “It is not clear from reading provisions in the Lee Plan in the land development code or administrative code that a street or roadway can be considered a site, such as it can be designated as a historic resource ... it does not reference a street or roadway as this type of resource. Nor do I believe that we have had a street or roadway designated as a historic resource under the land development code ... I respectfully request the board not approve the motion to begin the process of obtaining a designation report for Gilchrist.”
The Historic Preservation Board voted unanimously to begin discussions with the county to initiate the process of preparing an historic designation report, as proposed by board member Tim Seibert.
I’d like to get started with this so next fall we’re ready to deal with it,” he said. “I think we ought to go forward and let the lawyers hash this out. I don’t know why the process can’t go forward without approval by an attorney. Next fall when everyone comes back we hope to have public workshops and unravel this. And, as I read the county code, we are empowered to determine historical significance.”
When asked if Sajgo knew where the county stood on funding a Gilchrist parking and landscaping project, Sajgo’s answer was succinct: She didn’t know.
“I know the county wishes the community would come to a compromise,” she said. “I haven’t heard them talking about the funding part of this project and I think it’s an important component of all this, but first you need to decide what you want done.”
They then took comment from the more than 50 people who were in the audience at the meeting.
Several business owners, including Capt. Sandy Melvin, Mark Spurgeon, Chamber President Richy Edwards and Chamber Vice President Kevin Hyde, as well as Pastor Gary Beatty of the First Baptist Church of Boca Grande. They all spoke on behalf of the Community Plan.
Jay Whipple, another Boca Grande resident, questioned exactly what the historic designation of Gilchrist Avenue would mean.
“I hope that a historic designation doesn’t preclude ... access to the wonderful resources we have, and the perspectives that are being discussed here today,” he said.
Corinna Hammond said that in discussions with the parking engineer for Lee County, she was told they would suggest keeping the median as it is, and draw white lines eight feet out on either side for parallel parking, reducing the roadway to one lane each for north and south traffic.
“They have made their recommendation to Mr. Manning,” Hammond said.
In response, one island resident, Connie Gregg, said, “I have not parallel parked a car in 50 years, and at this point in my life am not going to buy a car that will do that for me.”
After the laughter subsided she continued.
“And when I’m a passenger and I open the door, I’m in the face of traffic. And that scares me.”
Another island resident, Dick Nielsen, said there was a key aspect he hadn’t heard mentioned.
“We’re talking about parking for this community. I don’t know what the percentage is of each, but I’ve heard the Gilchrist plan represents 20 percent of current parking, while the Inn plan represents about 80 percent. What happens to the village, to the merchants, to the weddings at the Beach Club and the visitors at the Inn? You need to look at this parking issue in terms of percentages.”
Prior to the meeting’s adjournment, board member Seibert said he didn’t feel that the board should look at just the two plans being discussed.
“Town planning should not be done by amateurs, it should be done by people who are trained in the profession,” he said.
Check the Boca Beacon web site, bocabeacon.com, next week for video footage of this meeting.
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