Another shot across the bow at the NHR

May 17, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY SUSAN HANAFEE – Even as the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board was conducting its routine monthly meeting this Wednesday, the skirmish over a controversial plan to nominate 129 downtown residences to the National Register of Historic Places was heating up at the local, county and state levels.

The latest salvo included copies of 60 notarized letters of opposition from Boca Grande residents that were sent to the state to be added to 22 forwarded earlier to Florida’s Division of Historic Resources. 

Those letters were shared with the Boca Grande board, along with a communication from Banyan Street resident Sally Downey: “Over 80 people did their homework and decided they did not want this honor, nor did they want an outside consultant to tell them what was best for their property. We needed 65 notarized letters to meet the requirement of opting out. We got 80 and are still counting.

“While the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board has not been unanimous in their voting on this subject, we ask you now to please support your community that has spoken loud and clear. Lee County is unanimous in their support of us and I do hope that you can be one voice as well. It is time to put this matter to rest,” she wrote.

Chairman Jerry Edgerton asked that the letter be read into the record. Board members, who twice voted 4-2 in opposition to the nomination, had no further comment. A copy of Downey’s letter is available on bocabeacon.com.

Downey’s communication came five days after Lee County Attorney Richard Wesch sent his own letter to Secretary of State Laurel Lee accusing the state of favoring outside interests over the citizens of Boca Grande.

Wesch said his office had received an email on May 4 from the nomination’s sponsor about her appeal of the historic preservation board’s actions but no official notification on the matter from the state.

“It appears that the National Register Review Board plans to hear the appeal at its August meeting. As discussed in my previous letter to you and reiterated herein, I find the startling lack of due process in the matter deeply concerning,” Wesch wrote. He also noted that he had received no response to the numerous questions posed in his earlier letter dated April 9.

“The bureaucratic machinations at play in this matter are unilaterally tilted in favor of outside interests, and against those that have actual skin in the game,” he continued. “The ongoing travesty that has been wrecked upon the citizens of Boca Grande should be put to a screeching halt.”

Clearly frustrated by what appeared to be a brush-off by state officials, Wesch said that he was fully prepared to take the matter to court to seek justice for Lee County and its residents. His complete letter is available at bocabeacon.com.

Despite the lack of formal communication from the state, attorney Amanda Swindle said earlier this week that she had seen emails from Ruben Acosta of the state’s Division of Historic Resources stating that the matter would indeed be considered at the August meeting of the state’s National Register Review Board.

It was likely those emails that prompted Wesch to comment: “Under a regulatory process that recognized fundamental private property rights, the overwhelming show of opposition by the residents of Boca Grande would be the death knell of this nomination. Unfortunately, it seems that is not the case.”

The National Register proposal, submitted last year by Mikki Hartig, a historic consultant from Sarasota, was voted down twice by the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board; first in November and again in March. The board’s opposition was then upheld by the Lee County Commissioners on April 6. 

Hartig is not a resident or property owner in Boca Grande but has done work on the National Register listing for The Gasparilla Inn. She has said on numerous occasions that she is not getting paid to back the nomination but is doing it because she cares about Boca Grande. Her appeal, with attachments, was 117 pages.

A surprising exhibit in the appeal was a letter from Dana Robinette, a member of the Historic Preservation Board for eight years, to State Historic Preservation Officer Timothy Parsons on April 29 saying that she supports the nomination to the National Register. 

At the March 10 board meeting, Robinette voted in opposition to the proposal after appearing to be confused and following a brief exchange with fellow board members. When she was asked to clarify her vote, she said it was “no.” In the end, the nomination was defeated by a 4-2 vote. 

In her letter, Robinette said that her local home is on the National Register and that Boca Grande’s “interesting history” should be recognized. She did not reference or attempt to recant her March 10 vote that helped defeat the proposal. She did not attend Wednesday’s board meeting.

In public hearings on the matter, residents in the affected area complained that they did not receive proper notification of Hartig’s plan, even though she claimed she had been working on it for two years. Opponents also didn’t like the idea of an outsider telling them what they could do with their land. The handful of supporters of the nomination argued that the listing is an honor and has no regulatory impact on a homeowner’s property.

In her appeal of the proposal’s rejection, Hartig charged that the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board failed to examine the substance of her nomination and instead focused on negative public opinion.

“The objections were primarily mounted from individuals outside the proposed district trying to politicize and discredit the nomination, and me personally, by circulating misinformation to ramp up public opposition,” Hartig wrote.

Wesch, however, suggested that Hartig’s appeal fails to meet even the most basic of legal requirements. “Ms. Hartig’s letter is essentially a list of grievances regarding the unfavorable public perception of her nomination,” he wrote in his letter to the state. 

He said another crucial element missing from Hartig’s letter is a determination of legal standing, meaning that she must show that “she is or will be injuriously affected by the order sought to be reviewed.”

He said the fact that Hartig can appeal the local preservation’s board’s decision “without apparent legal standing is shocking in itself. The further fact that the [state guidelines] do not provide the county or affected property owners the right to participate in, or receive notice of, such an appeal is an egregious miscarriage of justice that cannot be abided.”

The National Register appeal was not on the agenda at the Historic Preservation Board’s meeting this week. However, the two remodeling projects brought before the board were approved unanimously and without controversy.

The first project included the addition of a second-floor covered porch at 870 East Railroad Avenue. The house has an interesting history, having been moved to its current location in 2007 from 280 Palm Avenue. The original structure, done in a Cape Cod style, was built in 1930.

The owners also sought to enlarge a rear deck, construct a freestanding carport and generator platform and install an underground propane gas tank.

Homeowners who had several changes to their property at 1841 18th Street West approved in February were back for minor changes. They requested permission to replace an existing wood fence on the west boundary of their property with a new stucco-faced concrete wall, to relocate an approved gate in the south wall and to construct a new three-foot stucco-faced wall on the east boundary.

The next board meeting will be held on June 9.