BY MARCY SHORTUSE – If you hear the word “Gilchrist” and cringe, you are not alone. As this season begins, the controversy is already starting to heat back up. Before you dive into the cocktail party circuit conversations unarmed, here are some of the facts laid out in a timeline.
This shows at least some of the hours that have been put in on this controversy, on both sides of the debate, since 2003. Some of the information was gathered from church notes, some was obtained through Lee County commissioners and emails, some was gathered from stories we’ve written.
Maybe it’s time for a decision to be made. July, 2003: A variance for church expansion parking was granted to Boca Grande United Methodist Church.
This was a significant change to the community. The seating capacity for the church was raised from 96 to 334. All property owners on Gilchrist Avenue were given the opportunity to voice their opinions on this expansion. There were two mailings from Lee County, per regulations, and the public hearing notice was posted in the newspaper. Not one Gilchrist property owner objected, either in person, by phone or in writing during the 30-day appeal process.
Partial list of property owners (and date property purchased) at the time of the hearing:
Fletcher – 1993
Gorman – 1998 and 2001
Hammond – 1991(?)
Regnery – 1996
Howell – 1999
Bowers – 2003
Renowned architect and current president of the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board, Tim Seibert, purchased his property in Boca Grande in 1993. He did not voice any objection regarding compromising property of presumed historical significance.
On page 6 of the variance, regarding parking on the 5th Street lot, it specifically states that there is no letter of support from the County offering this as additional parking for churches. Department of Community Development staff member Ms. Nettie Richardson questioned the hearing examiner as to why this cannot be considered as church parking, and the documents stated his response: “It is a public parking lot provided for beach access and is located at the northwest side of 5th Street and Gilchrist.”
Page 7 lists the available right-of-way parking in town where business owners have granted permission for church use on Sundays. That number was 35 spaces. If you include the additional beach access parking on 5th Street (53 spaces) that brings the total to 88 spaces.
On Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015 there were 138 cars and golf carts parked on Gilchrist and 72 cars and golf carts parked on “available” county right-of-way and access streets for a total of 210. That leaves a parking deficit of 122 spaces.
It was noted that if the County continued to grant permission for Gilchrist curb lawns, the number of available parking for churches and the community would continue to diminish.
On page 10 of the variance document, Richardson was asked by the assistant Lee County attorney if Lee County Ordinance 91-35 addresses the area where the variance is being requested. Richardson replied, “It does not appear to apply to this area.” November, 2012: A meeting was held with Dan Headington and Bob Fletcher in attendance to talk about Gilchrist Parking. Nov. 19, 2012: Church pastors met with Jack Damioli (former general manager and president of the Gasparilla Inn & Club) to view the “Gasparilla Inn Plan.” December, 2012: The first meeting with Gilchrist neighbors (Fletcher, Cruz, Hammond) and clergy (Beatty, Brightly, Robertshaw) was held. Also present were Bayne Stevenson, Jack Damioli and Pete Durno. Dec. 11, 2012: An email from Randy Cerchie (Lee County Department of Transportation head) to Pastor Brian Brightly (shared with all pastors) was sent, saying that since the LDOT was not the originator of any of the plans, they would not be responsible for a public meeting and encouraged “originators of the plan” to gain consensus and hold community forums. *See December 2, 2015 February, 2013: The church vestry discussed the difference between the “Inn” plan and the “Neighbors” plan.
February St. Andrew’s vestry minutes report: “Jack Damioli has forwarded a plan to grass the center (of the Gilchrist median) with Augustine grass, oleander and trees to provide 80 spaces. All pastors are in favor. The Neighbors want a park-like appearance. As a church, we must be a part of the conversation.” March, 2013: The Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association endorsed the Inn plan. Jack Damioli appealed to church leadership to send a letter of support for the proposed Gasparilla Inn Plan. A request was scheduled to be presented at the April St. Andrew’s vestry meeting. April 26, 2013: The Boca Beacon ran an article titled “A Tale of Two Plans: The two plans for Gilchrist Avenue” April 29, 2013: Senior Warden Stan Ikenberry reported to the St. Andrew’s vestry via email that he had only “unofficially” seen the Neighbors’ plan.
– Vestry asked about right-of-way parking.
– The Neighbors group contacted the Boca Grande Historical Society seeking to establish Gilchrist as an historical landmark. *See Oct. 1, 2014
– Jack Damioli was requested to write Lee County Commissioner Manning in support of the Inn plan
– A request was made by vestry members to see the Neighbors plan. To date all they had exposure to was the Inn plan. May 8, 2013: St. Andrew’s vestry wardens planned to attend the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board meeting, where the Neighbors group was to seek to designate Gilchrist as an historical landmark. August, 2013: GIFT (Guarantee the Island’s Future Today”) sent out a “Resident’s Poll.” Pollster methods and data verification were questioned by Boca Beacon staff writer Jack Short in a letter to Commissioner John Manning. Sept. 5, 2013: The Office of the County Attorney addressed the question, “May the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board designate Gilchrist Avenue as an historical resource, pursuant to Lee County Land Development Code, Chapter 22?” The short answer, according to the Assistant County Attorney, was “No. The BGHP does not have the requisite legal authority under LDC, Chapter 22 to designate Gilchrist Avenue as an historical resource.”
It was determined that the Lee County Board of County Commissioners was legally required to remain responsible for the public’s health and safety in the superintendence and control of Gilchrist Avenue as a publicly maintained road. Allowing Gilchrist Avenue to be designated as an “historical resource” under the current provisions of LDC, Chapter 22 would be an inappropriate delegation of that authority. Sept. 18, 2013: The GICIA sent a letter to Commissioner John Manning endorsing the Community Plan (Option 1A). This letter stated that 91 endorsements had been sent from individuals, along with an endorsement from the GICIA (which represents over 1,000 members), all three Gilchrist churches and the Gasparilla Inn.
Commissioner Manning had requested community consensus, and the GICIA said they felt the community had responded to that request.
Oct. 12, 2013: The DOT proposal was discussed at a St. Andrew’s vestry meeting. Their plan proposed parallel parking on Gilchrist and did nothing to modify the median. Color photos of the DOT proposal were shared. Jay Whipple was asked to draft an email for the vestry to approve. The email was to outline the three proposals (Inn, Neighbors, DOT). The vestry was to determine preference and invite parishioners to write commissioners. Oct. 15, 2013: An open letter to the parish of St. Andrew’s was sent, requesting people to contact Lee County commissioners. Oct. 30, 2013: Pastor Brian Brightly of the Methodist Church asked for a meeting to discuss Gilchrist. A parisioner from St. Andrew’s, Stan Ikenberry, was also to attend. December, 2013: The Neighbors (a.k.a. the GIFT group) YouTube video surfaced. It included details about parking and photographs of poor parking on Gilchrist Avenue.
The St. Andrew’s vestry approved parking attendants to help with parking on the median during the season. December 16, 2013: Jack Damioli and Inn owner/island resident Will Farish met with Bob Fletcher in an attempt to resolve the parking issue. Nothing was resolved. Feb. 10, 2014: Michael Ott called the first meeting of the “Gilchrist Committee.” It was hosted by Jon Reecher, with the hope of getting moderates on both sides of the issue to sit down and discuss a mutual path going forward. Stan Ikenberry and Mother Michelle Robertshaw were to represent St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Feb 21, 2014: An email from a St. Andrew’s senior warden was sent out, indicating the Methodist church did not plan to attend the “Gilchrist Committee” meetings, because they supported the Inn’s plan and had been informed that the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce and the GICIA felt the same way. Two days before the meeting was to be held, Michael Ott called to indicate that he planned to cancel the “Committee” meeting. March 18, 2014: Meetings were held with Commissioner John Manning and Commissioner Larry Kiker separately. Both expressed support for Option 1A, which the churches and the Inn had proposed. Neither would comment as to when the proposal would go before the Lee County Commission, except to say that Lee County DOT staff was currently working on defining adherence to ordinances, and that Option 1A was from that point on defined as the Lee County Plan. March 25, 2014: A meeting was held with Commissioner Frank Mann to discuss progress by commissioners in finding a resolution to the Gilchrist issue. Commissioner Mann encouraged them to seek a resolution and compromise with the Gilchrist Neighborhood Association. May 23, 2014: A meeting was held with Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais regarding the Gilchrist issue. Desjarlais was direct in the fact he supported the church and Inn proposal, but he had to have the Lee County DOT working on the plan. He then stated there would most likely be no action taken until the fall of 2014. August 16, 2014: An article was published by a Fort Myers newspaper titled “Treasure Unearthed: Lost City is Boca Grande.” It contained information provided by Gilchrist residents alluding the fact that the Olmstead firm had something to do with Gilchrist Avenue design. September 11, 2014: A St. Andrew’s Senior Warden communicated to the vestry that proposals for Gilchrist and related parking issues were coming to a head, and that a phone conference call between The Inn, the churches and others was held on Tuesday, Sept. 2. The focus of the call was the meeting of the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board that was to be held the next day (Gilchrist was ultimately pulled from the board’s agenda). October 1, 2014: The Gilchrist Neighborhood Association hired Archeology Consultants, Inc. of Sarasota to determine Gilchrist Avenue’s eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historical Places.
A letter was sent by Larry Hannah on behalf of all three churches and the Inn, expressing their objection to this determination of eligibility. A response was received from the Division of Historical Resources, State of Florida, regarding the determination of eligibility for historical designation.
The response indicated that Gilchrist Avenue was eligible under Criterion A, not under Criteria B and C.
The suggestions from the Division of Historical Resources suggested that landscape restoration following National Park Service guidance provided the best opportunity for Gilchrist Avenue to be successfully nominated. This would also help Gilchrist Avenue achieve “continuity of viewshed,” which is required for eligible roadways.
It was determined there might be a stronger case for nominating Gilchrist Avenue as an amendment to the existing National Register listing for the Downtown Boca Grande Historical District, rather than pursuing an individual nomination. November 14, 2014: St. Andrew’s Senior Warden Stan Ikenberry was to meet with Bob Fletcher at Mr. Fletcher’s request. Will Farish and Larry Hannah met with Assistant County Manager Doug Meurer and Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais. They asked for a timeline for moving the project forward, and the answer given was that the Lee County DOT was working on the project. November 21, 2014: A meeting was held with Commissioner John Manning. Again they asked about the timeline for a commission meeting. Commissioner Manning said that after the new bridge to Boca Grande was complete, Lee County would be paving most of the Lee County roads in Boca Grande, and the parking issue “should be out of the way before that.” He also said he “was tired of dealing with this issue.” November 25, 2014: Methodist Church member Larry Hannah received a copy of a letter from a Fort Myers law firm addressed to Rick Roberts, Chief Code Enforcement Officer for Lee County, advising that the permitted use of a place of worship was not a “church-sponsored” function. He was referring to the Boca Grande Duplicate Bridge Club, a 501(c)7 entity.
The following week Attorney Bruce Strayhorn, Larry Hannah, a representative of code enforcement and the Lee County attorney met to resolve the issue. The bridge club was allowed to continue using the church through April 30, 2015, and the Methodist Church agreed that beyond that point all functions held at the church would only be church-sponsored events. Dec. 16, 2014: St. Andrew’s Junior Warden Valerie Walch responded to an individual parishioner concerned about Gilchrist and a “threatening” email. A conversation was held that apparently ended on a positive note. Jan. 19, 2015: GNA member Bob Fletcher gave the St. Andrew’s Warden and Rector a copy of a county code that addresses groups that gather in churches. He suggested that church programs like “Music at St. Andrew’s” could be considered in violation of code. Jan. 21, 2015: St. Andrew’s Senior Warden received a letter from GNA member Alice Gorman and made plans to visit with her.
Senior Warden met with GNA members Jack and Jeanne Blum to hear their concerns about Gilchrist. March 12, 2015: A request came from Alice Gorman (on behalf of St. Andrew’s Gilchrist neighbors) to the vestry asking to meet together. March 19, 2015: St. Andrew’s parishioner Stan Ikenberry and Will Farish had a conversation about Gilchrist. March 26, 2015: A meeting was held with Commissioner John Manning to discuss Option 1A and how it compared to the Waldrop Plan presented by the GNA. Again he stated he was in support of Option 1A and would be working to get an agenda item and approval. April 1, 2015: A meeting was called with the St. Andrew’s vestry to hear the “Community Plan” endorsed by the GICIA, The Inn, the Chamber and churches. Larry Hannah was scheduled to make the presentation April 2, 2015: Mary O’Bannon completed her term as vice president of the GICIA. April 3, 2015: Mary O’Bannon contacted Lee County Commissioners and requested meetings with individual commissioners regarding the Gilchrist issue.
NOTE: Prior to the meeting with all commissioners and staff, Mary O’Bannon spoke with her employer, United States Senator Bill Nelson, and his Chief of Staff, Pete Mitchell, asking for correct protocol regarding these meetings. She was directed to take personal time and record the meetings on her official calendar. That directive was followed. April 9, 2015: Mary O’Bannon, Will Farish and Larry Hannah met for the first time to discuss the Gilchrist median effort going forward, on behalf of the three churches and the Inn. April 10, 2015: The GICIA voted to support the proposed church and Inn plan (Option 1A). This decision was reported in the Boca Beacon after the GICIA reviewed Option 1A and the Waldrop Plan.
The GICIA resolution was sent to Commissioner John Manning, with copies to all commissioners. It said, “The vote was based on achieving a balance between respecting our history, protecting our unique atmosphere and formulating an appropriate vision for the future of our community.”
A meeting was held with Commissioner Larry Kiker at the Methodist Church Fellowship Hall. He informed participants that he had met with representatives of the Gilchrist Neighborhood Association earlier in the day and felt a compromise was available. He was assured a meeting would be scheduled with representatives of the GNA, and again they would try again to find a compromise.
Commissioner Kiker had several proposals and also discussed the possible expansion of Lee County’s Fifth Street parking lot. April 11, 2015: Members of the GNA who live near St. Andrew’s met with vestry expressing hurt regarding the vestry’s endorsement of the Community Plan (1A). April 16, 2015: Mother Michelle of St. Andrew’s met with Bob and Ann Fletcher. April 17, 2015: The Gilchrist Neighborhood Association hosted the debut of their movie regarding the history of Gilchrist. After the movie was shown, the lack of designated parking for the Baptist Church (the plan presented in the film showed 11 spaces in front of the Methodist Church and Episcopal Churches only) was brought into question by Mary O’Bannon. GNA member Alice Gorman assured Mary O’Bannon that this was an oversight, and when presented later in the day to the church vestry, this omission would be corrected. Later that day the church vestry heard the presentation by neighbors of the “GNA” plan. April 19, 2015: Developer Pat Neal, Bob Fletcher, Larry Hannah and Will Farish met at the Farish residence in an attempt to find a compromise on the Gilchrist median issue. Nothing was accomplished. April 21, 2015: It was anticipated by many that the Gilchrist issue would be placed on the Lee County Commissioners’ meeting agenda. April 22, 2015: Mary O’Bannon met individually with Lee County Commissioners Brian Hamman, Frank Mann and Larry Kiker regarding the Gilchrist issue. April 24, 2015: Mary O’Bannon met with Lee County Commissioner John Manning. April 29, 2015: Notice was taken of the Department of Environmental Protection Agreement No.09LE1, dated Dec. 15, 2009 and signed by Ray Judah as chairman of the Lee County Commission, regarding the beach renourishment plan of 2009.
While it appeared that it ended on July 31, 2012, in paragraph 6 it said that the life of the project was 10 years, commencing on the date of the agreement (Dec. 15, 2009). That agreement specifically referenced in paragraph 12 stated that the local sponsor (Lee County) agreed to maintain public beach access and public parking spaces throughout the life of the project.
DEP Agreement No. 09LE1 attachment B1 of 1 lists 3rd Street as having 41 parking spaces, Banyan Street 42 spaces and First Street 28 parking spaces.
Therefore, it would appear that Lee County had committed itself to maintaining these parking spaces, which would include Gilchrist parking, for a period of 10 years. May 1, 2015: Will Farish met with developer Pat Neal in another attempt to reach a compromise. Nothing was accomplished. May 6, 2015: Mary O’Bannon met again with Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker and had an impromptu meeting with Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass in the courthouse reception area. May 14, 2015: Baptist Church Pastor Gary Beatty wrote the Lee County Commission for a second time endorsing the 1A parking plan for Gilchrist.
May 15, 2015: At the request of Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker, one representative from each group was scheduled to meet with Assistant Lee County Manager Doug Meurer in his office in Fort Myers. It was decided that Mary O’Bannon and Pat Neal would be the representatives. Neal was accompanied by a public relation’s assistant.
Neal presented his Waldrop Plan, which included all trees, vegetation, decorative boulders, etc. to be removed and replaced with 35 parking spaces – both parallel and angled – on the 4th Street beach access. The proposal on the 3rd Street beach access was to remove all vegetation, with 20 parallel parking spaces on both sides of street.
Parking along the Banyan Street beach access included all vegetation removed, with 20 parallel parking spaces on both sides of street, and at the 1st Street beach access all trees and vegetation were to be removed, with 18 parallel parking spaces on both sides of street. From 1st Street to Park Avenue the plan showed all large Australian pines removed between the road and the bike path, which would make room for 14 parallel parking spaces on the south side of street.
In the Waldrop Plan, on Gilchrist Avenue there were 22 designated handicap parking spaces for the Episcopal and Methodist Churches. Despite previous assurances, no parking was provided for the Baptist Church. On the county right-of-way the plan showed five parking spaces for the Methodist Church, four for the Episcopal Church and four for the Baptist Church.
Neal presented his (estimated) $750,000 landscape plan and offered it as a “gift to the county and to the people of Boca Grande.” Meurer said the plan was conceptual and did not begin to address DOT compliance and safety regulations. He also asked Neal if he would like to discuss curb lawns, and how they have diminished parking (It is estimated that 20 curb lawns have been planted on the county right-of-way. This has caused an estimated loss of more than 40 parking spaces in the last 10 years on Gilchrist).
After two hours of discussion, Mary O’Bannon asked Meurer if he felt that the GNA representative was open to compromise, as he said it appeared the issue was at a standstill.
Mary O’Bannon thanked everyone for their time and at 5 p.m. left the meeting. May 19, 2015: Will Farish, Larry Hannah and Mary O’Bannon met to discuss future plans for advancing Option 1A. May 20, 2015: At the request of Assistant Lee County Administrator Doug Meurer, Mary O’Bannon met with him to clarify certain questions he had regarding the meeting on May 15. June 16, 2015: Mary O’Bannon contacted Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott regarding parking on Gilchrist and asked about any past safety issues or concerns regarding parking on the median. None had been reported to date. July 15, 2015: Mary O’Bannon met with church deacons and Pastor Beatty at the Baptist Church to bring them up to date on the progress and concerns regarding parking. Beatty and church Deacon Bill Larson proposed that the church contribute $10,000 to the Methodist Church to assist in legal fees. The vote was unanimous.
St Andrew’s vestry met to discuss a request from the Methodist Church to provide financial support for mounting expenses. They voted to provide $10,000. July 29, 2015: Church vestry sent a letter to the congregation confirming support of beautification and preservation of access to all churches, and supports preserving the long-standing practice of short-term parking for church-sponsored activities. Aug. 9, 2015: After the Baptist Church service, Deacon Bill Larson addressed the congregation on the issue of parking on Gilchrist Avenue. He briefly explained the Waldrop Plan as proposed by the Gilchrist Neighborhood Association and mentioned it did not include parking for the Baptist Church. He explained that the GNA had suggested that Baptist Church members make use of the County-owned 5th Street lot.
Mary O’Bannon made herself available for a Q & A session. After the session a vote was called, and the membership voted unanimously to support the proposal of $10,000 to support Methodist Church. September 4, 2015: Pastor Matthew Williams, Pastor Gary Beatty, Mother Michelle Robertshaw and Mary O’Bannon met in Fort Myers with Lee County Commissioner John Manning and Randy Cerchie, Director of Lee County DOT, and then with Lee County Commission Chairman Brian Hamman. October 21, 2015: Mary O’Bannon attended the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board meeting where another curb lawn was approved on the Gilchrist county right-of-way, further eliminating available parking.
Later that day Mary O’Bannon called Cerchie for an update on conceptual parking plans for Gilchrist. Cerchie said his staff was working on Gilchrist, as well as on the 5th Street expansion. November 15, 2015: Mary O’Bannon placed flyers on all cars and golf carts parked on the median in front of the Baptist and Episcopal churches. She provided Larry Hannah with flyers for the Methodist Church.
Flyers were placed only on 138 cars and golf carts parked on the median. No flyers were placed on cars and golf carts parked on the “available” county right-of-way space, access streets or businesses.
St Andrew’s open forum allowed neighbors and parish members a chance to voice their issues and concerns. Attendees were asked to contact Commissioner John Manning, firstname.lastname@example.org, and express their opinion. November 16, 2015: The Methodist Church held a congregational meeting led by Larry Hannah, who reviewed the timeline from the 2003 variance to the present situation. November 28, 2015: The St. Andrew’s Church vestry sent a letter to parishioners re-stating support for the Church and Inn plan (Option 1A). November 29, 2015: 184 cars were parked on the median to attend services held at three churches. This number did not include cars and golf carts utilizing beach access streets, available county right-of-way or business parking. December 2, 2015: To date, more than 200 letters and cards of support from individuals and organizations have been received by Lee County Commissioner John Manning and fellow commissioners. The attendance at three churches encompasses over 500 households, and there are GICIA members in more than 1,000 households.
In addition is the membership of the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce and the Gasparilla Inn Beach Club.
Consensus has been reached by the community, as requested.