After years of battling anonymous complaints, The Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board presented what seems like a light at the end of the tunnel.
Lee County Government attorney, Amanda Swindle, attended the August 11 Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board Meeting with proposed Lee County Ordinance NO. 21-XX.
“This is the product of really great work by DCD staff working with the attorney’s office to draft this proposed ordinance,” said Swindle. “It was originally going to be a permitted yearly situation. The way it’s drafted now, it would not require permits or any action on the part of the county.”
Swindle continued to explain that the ordinance would allow things like tables and chairs, signs and outdoor displays on the sidewalks that are adjacent to businesses with approved commercial use.
“There would be a requirement that items are removed when business is closed or a requirement that appropriate pedestrian travel is maintained and that parking spaces, bike racks, things like that aren’t blocked,” Swindle continued to explain. “There’s also a provision for in the case of emergencies, hurricanes or some other kind of safety situation, that county has the right to go and ask that things be removed and put inside for safety reasons.”
When asked about the timing of the approval of the ordinance, Swindle deferred to Anthony Rodriguez, Zone Manager with Lee County, who said that he thought an October approval seemed likely.
“We will take this to our review committees that Ms. Swindle alluded to, probably in September,” Rodriguez continued. “And then something for a public hearing adoption by the board in October or November, depending on the board’s schedule.”
After hearing from Swindle and Rodriguez, the Board opened the meeting to comments, as resident Hank Yeiser took the podium and asked if there would be an opportunity for the public to provide input.
“Yes, there will be a notice when there will be a meeting along with a link where you can access the agenda,” said Swindle.
Yeiser asked how residents would receive information about this meeting and how they could access information. Swindle said that board meetings would be listed in the news, The Boca Beacon along with the Fort Myers News-Press. “I believe that the newspaper would be the place to go, but the board of county commissioners meets twice a month on Tuesday. You can go to the county website to see when those are scheduled, the date and time.’
Yeiser expressed his concerns for the local business owners.
“One of the things that concerns me most are unintended consequences. Like this, to have a $250 a day fine or up to 60 days in jail for somebody to do something that has been going on for decades seems pretty extreme. I just don’t think having a piece of furniture outside overnight is worth even the possibility of jail.”
Swindle explained that while the penalties sounded severe, they are described as a not-to-exceed type of penalty and are the standard penalties that they have for code violations. She did add, “I have never seen a fine of $250 a day.”
Yeiser continued to express concern.
“Here’s just one unintended consequence. There’s an ice machine in front of Hudson’s. It’s been there since time began and it is 36 inches from the edge of the sidewalk. You’re requiring 42 inches. Will the owner of Hudson’s be liable for jail if she didn’t move the ice machine?”
Swindle responded that she was not familiar with that particular ice machine. “But the intent of this ordinance is to be permissive, not restrictive. As it stands now, none of this is permitted, so with this ordinance, as I said, it’s broadening the scope of what’s allowed, not restricting it.”
“I can’t speak on certain issues,” continued Swindle. “But again, as it stands now, none of this is permitted so with this ordinance, it’s broadening the scope of what’s allowed, not restricting it.”
“Do you think we can broaden it even more,” Yeiser asked. “Because people are going to be put in jail. We have a very charming downtown, and part of the charm is that the furniture is there. This ordinance is restricting and is saying people can go to jail if they don’t remove what’s there.”
“That’s the state of things now,” Swindle responded. “I think there was some discussion early on in the development of this ordinance to try to identify certain things, but I mean to write an ordinance to address every bench or ice machine. It’s something we could suggest going forward. As I said, the intent of the county in drafting this ordinance is not to restrict anything, because it is currently prohibited. It is to be a permissive ordinance. I don’t think the intent is to go after any of the existing amenities that the people of Boca Grande enjoy. I’ll be happy to take that suggestion forward, that there be some kind of waiver process.”
Board Member Becky Paterson asked about seating and tables, and whether or not they should be removed each evening. Swindle said that the ordinance does provide that those should be moved in at night or when the business isn’t open. Paterson agreed, and said that bringing furniture in at night would cut down on vandalism.
“I would agree that if a shop wants to take their furniture inside, that would be their right to do so. But I don’t see why it’s necessary,” responded Yeiser.
The comment was made that as of now, the law states that they need to remove it all, so this ordinance would be an improvement on the existing situation and the suggestion was made to solicit input from the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce and local business owners.
“So, is the recommendation of this board then to request to put this ordinance on pause and stop the review process?” asked Swindle.
The board responded they did not want to stop the review process.
“That’s what we would have to do to send it to the Chamber of Commerce and get comments and take it back,” Swindle said. “That would restart this process.”
The ordinance does require careful examination. While business owners would be spared the need to apply for individual permits, the question of insurance liability remains to be answered.
The board’s final decision was to open this up to an open forum, to get input from the public and provide that to Lee County Government.
In addition to the discussion of the proposed ordinance, two Special Certificate of Appropriateness (SCA) cases were presented to the board:
• The Johnson Residents at 341 Lee Ave was unanimously approved.
• The Wood Demo at 921 9th Street West presented more controversy, as a letter from Guerrino Savio was read for the records, stating, “The proposed Wood residence would be a beautiful house, but the Board’s duty is to protect historic resources not to approve beautiful houses.”
Board member, Paul Eddy asked the question, “The owners, do they intend to maintain the contributing stature of this house? I wonder about that because there is not much of the historic house left. I know it (the house) pretty well and it was a funky, wonderful Boca Grande house. I mean, very typical of the genre here in the neighborhood.”
It was noted that maintaining the home’s structural stability that meets code is important and that this is “A living residence, not a museum.”
The board approved the project with one dissent.
The meeting agenda and materials for the cases are available online at leegov.com/dcd/events. The next board meeting is on September 8, 2021.