Boca Grande Community Planning Panel has returned and is looking for public input

January 17, 2020
By Marcy Shortuse

Perhaps you noticed an ad in last week’s and this week’s newspaper announcing that the Boca Grande Community Planning Association, Inc. is looking for input from the community regarding potential changes to our comprehensive plan for the island. The name at the top of the ad may look familiar to you, even if you haven’t seen it in quite a while. That’s because the Boca Grande Community Planning Association is, in fact, the organization that created the Boca Grande Community Planning Panel (the name most knew it by), which finished its work in 2004.
Community Planning Association President Peter Solmssen said that their objective is essentially the same: to massage the old community plan established decades ago to keep up with current issues that the island is experiencing.  
Solmssen is joined by former panel members Lynne Seibert and Ted Hoopes, as well as new member Andy Krusen. He said this planning association is the same entity, and is still a nonprofit corporation that is tax- exempt because it is allowed to do community service. 
Solmssen said the resurrection of the panel was due to disappointment on the behalf of some community members, who feel as though some people have taken advantage of and exploited loopholes in the Gasparilla Act.
“We have considerable protection on this island through a state statute, but through the use of aggressive tactics, people have been allowed to do things that are not in keeping with the intent of the Act,” Solmssen said. “The thought was that we could go back to the community plan of 2004 and maybe augment it to address those concerns. I’ll add that the community plan of 2004 itself recognizes that it’s not complete. There are numerous sections that state that more work needs to be done, in which Lee County commits itself to work with our community to address that unfinished work.”
The Lee County Vision Statement and Lee County Goal, Objectives and Policies for Boca Grande was adopted unanimously by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners as Consent Ordinance 05-19 on October 12, 2005. The vision statement and goal, objectives and policies became effective on January 9, 2006 and were incorporated into the Lee County Comprehensive Plan 2006 Codification as Amended through November 2006. They are now included in the Lee Plan 2009 Codification as Amended through May 2009, which is available online at the website of the Lee County Department of Community Development, 
Solmssen said that there are a number of people involved who felt the community panel needed to be revived. He admits that he and his wife are new to the island, but he was disappointed with a few things that have happened on the island, which don’t feel like they are in keeping with the spirit of the Act.
“We did our own renovation on a 1929 house, and while we found the strictures to be, in fact, very strict, we thought they were for the good of the community,” he said. “We didn’t make the changes we would have liked to, but we thought what we did was in keeping with the vernacular of the architecture, and we thought it was a good process. When we saw people not abiding by these strictures and avoiding the Historic Preservation Board, I thought that was wrong. When I was asked to take this on, I thought that doing this would be a good way to do it, and I would be happy to help.”
Solmssen said the first thing they will do is to reach out to the community to see if there is a common view of what needs to be done. That is why they have set a public meeting for Monday, Jan. 27 at 4 p.m. in the Boca Grande Community Center auditorium. The panel is asking that residents who wish to be included in a survey email and request to have a survey sent to them. 
“We hear a lot of complaining, but it’s nice to have people articulate what they think needs to be changed,” Solmssen said. 
While the last panel was focused on beach access streets, Gilchrist Avenue parking, historic district markers and parking and traffic analysis, Solmssen said the board’s current objectives include topics such as population density, downtown code enforcement and amenities, noise complaints and commercial use definitions.
“One of the main things is density,” he said. “The Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association is litigating right now, because there is ambiguity as to how the density rules are applied. If you look at the existing law, there is a sort of gap because of the way Lee County regulations were changed that needs to be filled in.”  
Solmssen also mentioned downtown amenities, such as sidewalk dining. 
“There is a right way to address that, there are people who have engineering expertise, and there are also the wishes of the community. What the zoning law in Fort Myers is doesn’t need to be the law here.” Noise is another topic. “There are lots of complaints about loud leaf blowers … also, what is a commercial use? I was surprised to find that an assisted living facility is considered an appropriate use in a residential community.” 
He continued.
“It seems to me these are the kinds of things, without prejudging them, that need to be addressed as a community.”
When asked if the public would be able to attend these meetings and if they would be announced, he said they would.
“The GICIA has promised to support us, but there is no county or state budget for this group,” Solmssen said. “We could use some volunteers. We want to act as if the Sunshine Law applies, which it doesn’t. We plan to have open meetings, and we plan to be as Sunshine-y as we can be without it being awkward.”