A message to Lee County Commissioners: Listen to reason when it comes to Gilchrist parking, but please make a decision

gilchrist & one way sign copyBY MARCY SHORTUSE – Just when I thought nothing more about the Gilchrist parking situation would surprise me, I found I was wrong. The proposal by the Gilchrist Neighborhood Association has really left me scratching my normally objective head. It’s time again to bring this to people’s attention, because there’s a slim chance Lee County Commissioners will be making a decision in the next few months. I’m not holding my breath, but it might happen.

Keep in mind that I have been told by a few members of GNA that the Waldrop Plan is not necessarily the final offering to be brought to the table by the GNA. Others have told me it is.

I believe this could be the year the community could come to a compromise, I really do. I don’t think it’s impossible. Right now people on both sides of the argument feel that the other side is trying to tear them down, and in some cases they are right. I do know that this decision isn’t one to be made by a handful of people from both sides of the issue, and it seems as if that’s the way it is viewed. This is a community issue, and the people of this island need to be aware of the facts. The facts should not be covered up in exclusive meetings and whispered conversations.

And this isn’t a competition, even though a few people have tried to make it into that. That’s where communication has broken down, among island residents and between islanders and Lee County administration. This is getting frustrating for everyone, and logical, cool-headed thinking is rarer than hen’s teeth.

For instance, I tried to understand when the GNA said the bridge club was clogging the street with so many cars, and for so many hours at a time. But the bridge club has moved down to the Crowninshield House, so that argument is moot.

I tried to understand when the GNA said the Methodist Church had gained approval for their expansion from the County by working under the radar during the summer, and because of that there wasn’t enough parking for the bigger church crowd. But I realize the churches were there before most of the residents who now live there were.

I also believe, as do many others, that having thriving churches on our island is nothing but beneficial. If we are one of the few small towns that can actually boast that the churches are too full, we are in a unique societal bracket. Sorry for your luck if you live on Gilchrist and have to look at a mess of cars for a few hours in the morning on Sunday, but having church-going people in front of your home isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Even more importantly, when a variance hearing was held in 2003 to give the neighbors a chance to protest the church expansion, not one Gilchrist neighbor contested the expansion. When the residents there received letters showing the church’s plans for expansion, not one Gilchrist resident came forward to say they didn’t like the idea.

I tried to understand the problem with “curb lawns,” but since that whole issue arose years ago, there have been numerous curb lawns planted (and old curb lawns maintained) by the residents who live along Gilchrist Avenue. It’s hard for me to hear and understand people who say they don’t want anyone parking in the median, only to watch them take away parking by planting on county easements.

I tried to understand the whole “historically significant” argument proposed by many, but after doing a lot of research I have realized that (1) while Mr. Olmstead certainly had great plans for our boulevard, there is no real proof that any of them were ever implemented, shy of a few plantings, and (2) Gilchrist Avenue has never had much more than randomly planted palm trees and bushes. Other than a few bald spots on the grass (some of which were worn down to dirt over many, many years but recently resodded), Gilchrist Avenue is barely different than it has been in years past. It is, in fact, more manicured now than it was long ago.

And it still counts as “green space,” even if people occasionally park there. Yes, it does.

The community has spoken about what it wants. The consensus rallying cry has been called so many times that people are tired of it. We have spoken – many times – but our answer wasn’t correct according to a small special interest group, so our words were, and continue to be, ignored.

Ask most full-time residents of Boca Grande how they really feel about the parking situation on Gilchrist and they’ll either tell you they don’t give a rat’s hindquarters or they think it should be left as it is. A few will say they would like to see some nicer landscaping, if anything were to be done. But that’s it.

According to the proposal created by the GNA, almost 200 trees would be taken out. All along First Street, the beautiful old casuarina trees and palms would be gone. The sea grapes and palms that hide the back of The Gasparilla Inn Beach Club would be gone. The Wagschal’s rocks and plants and trees? Gone.

Putting more trees on the Gilchrist median so people can’t park there does not make up for the loss of those old palms and casuarinas on First Street. All of the greenery on the noted beach accesses would be taken away, and a new parking configuration would be implemented that is far more dangerous than anything we have now.

Take a walk or a drive down to the Fourth Street beach access. On one side you have the Wagschal’s house, and on the other side you have The Gasparilla Inn Beach Club. The Waldrop proposal shows parallel parking on the south side of the street and angled parking on the north side. This leaves a small amount of room down the middle.

Now imagine you’ve been to the beach and you’re getting ready to leave. Unless you’re driving a Prius or some similar small car, if you’ve parallel parked you will have to do some pretty fancy maneuvering or go in reverse and back down the entire length of the street until you reach Gilchrist. Then you’ll have to back out into traffic. If you drive a minivan or a pick-up truck, I can pretty much guarantee that you would have to back up.

If you’re angle-parked along the Beach Club wall, you’ll have to do the same thing, unless yours is the only car parked there and you have room to back up and around.

That doesn’t make any sense at all to me, particularly since I sit at that beach access almost every weekday morning. I have been borrowing my father-in-law’s Chevy van since my car was wrecked in an accident, and it has the turning radius of a semi truck. Even without cars parked on either side of me, I have to turn it around with considerable care to make it out of there.

There are some people who think they can get what they want by throwing money at a problem (or a commissioner … whatever works best at the time). Some people think this is a game, and it’s a game they want to win no matter the cost.

It’s not a game.

You don’t dramatically change the landscape of the island, and you don’t completely undercut your merchants, your churches and your visitors so you don’t have to wake up in the morning and look out on cars that are parking in spots where cars have been parking for decades.

If you bought property on a main road, be prepared for traffic. If you bought a beachfront home on a public beach and begrudge others for wanting to enjoy that public beach as well, maybe you should rethink your real estate choice. It’s that simple.

If you were to count the letters that have been written to Lee County Commissioners over the years, asking them to please allow people to continue to park on Gilchrist, there would certainly be close to 1,000. That’s not a random number. I have files full of them. In the last few weeks alone, more than 200 have been written. But every time a commissioner leaves and another one takes his or her place, we start all over. This has been debated for decades, and still no decision has been made by Lee County. The longer this goes on, the crazier the people for and against parking on the median become … and we don’t need more craziness here. We’re all stocked up already.

Lee County Commissioners, the people of this island have spoken to you again and again, and our message is clear: Most of us don’t want parking changes, but just make a decision already. Please, Commissioners, make your decision on Gilchrist parking soon.

Marcy Shortuse is the editor of the Boca Beacon