Commissioners vote to oppose NHR nomination

April 9, 2021
By BBadmin7502

BY SUSAN HANAFEE
Lee County Commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday, April 6 to oppose the nomination of 129 individual homes and structures in Boca Grande to the National Register of Historic Places. Their vote supported two previous rejections of the proposal by the local Historic Preservation Board.
But by noon on Wednesday, April 7, supporters of the nomination had already notified the State Historic Preservation Officer of their intent to file an appeal, according to Mark Ard, interim communications director for the Florida Department of State.
Despite the nomination being voted down three times by local bodies, Ard said that Florida’s government guidelines require the state to continue with the review process once an appeal is received.
Jerry Edgerton, chairman of the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board, said it is not clear what issues would be considered in an appeal. “The process has been followed and the local and county boards have made their wishes known,” he said.
In discussing the matter Tuesday, Lee County Commissioner Kevin Ruane said he had received many calls opposing the National Register listing and none in favor. Ruane’s district includes Boca Grande.
A small contingency of Boca Grande residents traveled to Fort Myers to testify against the proposal created by Mikki Hartig, a Sarasota historic consultant who has no ownership ties to the island. But no supporters appeared before the five-member body, even though Ruane twice offered the public the opportunity to speak on the issue.
The commissioners’ decision to reject the nomination proposal followed the written recommendation of Lee County Attorney Amanda Swindle. In an April 6 agenda item report to the commissioners, she noted that the nomination had been opposed by the Boca Grande board on March 10 “based on technical and procedural deficiencies in the nomination process, as well as a lack of support from affected property owners.”
Courtney McGovern, who owns a cottage in the historic district, told the commissioners that it is “discouraging that an outside special interest has created division and contention in our small community.” She said later she was referring to comments she has heard from supporters of the proposal, most of whom live on Gilchrist Avenue.
“This process by the consultant’s own admission has been a two-year effort. And yet I and many others received no notification about this nomination and had to scramble to object to it,” she told the commissioners.
Also speaking against the proposal was historic district resident Madonna Merritt, whose husband, John, is confined to a wheelchair. “Our lives are complicated and we have a lot of regulations to deal with on a daily basis. Governments change and rules change, and I think it would do John a disservice, as well as my children, if we were to get a (National Register) designation that would possibly make our lives a little more complicated.”
Supporters have claimed that the National Register listing is merely an honor and would result in no additional federal oversight for homeowners. But for an individual to opt out of such a listing would require 50 percent plus one of the affected homeowners to send registered letters to the state saying they don’t want to be included.
Ard said that even if the required number of residents opt out, federal regulations still require the nomination be sent to the National Park Service for a determination of eligibility. In that case, persons who opted out would not be listed in the National Register.
However, if a majority of property owners do not submit formal objections, all contributing properties (those that are considered historic and part of what makes the district eligible for listing) will be listed in the National Register, even if their owners formally objected. Once an area has been included in the National Register, an individual homeowner cannot opt out, Ard said.
Swindle’s written recommendation to the county commissioners also provides insight as to why some Gilchrist residents appear to be eager to support the listing. She said that when the local board first considered the proposal and rejected it by a vote of four to two in December 2020, the board requested that the nomination be revised to exclude Gilchrist Avenue as a contributing or historic resource within the proposed district.
“Although the revised nomination does not include Gilchrist Avenue as a contributing resource, it is still located within the proposed [National Register] district and is discussed at length within the nomination narrative,” she wrote.
As a matter of practice and legal interpretation, Lee County has not treated any road rights-of-way as historic facilities or properties.
“Staff is concerned that identifying them as historically significant could be a potential hindrance to operational and safety improvements and regular maintenance if they become subject to the historic preservation review process,” Swindle added.
Gilchrist residents have long complained about parking on the median and vehicles crowding the access roads off Gilchrist to the public beaches.
Ironically, a state hearing on the Boca Grande nomination has been on the agenda of the May 6 National Register Review Board for several weeks. And Swindle pointed out that while members of the public can provide written comments regarding the nomination, it appears that neither the affected property owners nor the local government are allowed to actually participate in the hearing.