BY SUSAN HANAFEE – Emails opposing the inclusion of a major portion of historic downtown Boca Grande into the National Register of Historic Places are pouring into the Historic Preservation Board’s mailbox ahead of a public meeting on the issue next month.
“At this point, based on the emails we are receiving, many more people are opposed to this idea than are in favor of it,” said Jerry Edgerton, chairman of the Boca Grande board. “But we don’t want people to be complacent. We want to hear from everyone.”
Interested persons can send their opinions on the issue, both pro and con, to contact@BGHPB.org.
The proposal was first presented in September by Mikki Hartig, owner of Historical and Architectural Research Services in Sarasota, to the Lee County Historic Preservation Board in Fort Myers. The Boca Grande board will consider an amended version of her plan at its next meeting on March 10, after denying her original proposal by a vote of 4 to 2 in November.
The area in question includes 129 nominated resources and is roughly bounded by 5th Street West, Lee Avenue, 1st Street West and the Gulf of Mexico.
Most who have shared their comments with the Boca Grande board are concerned about what they perceive as the potential negative impact such a designation could bring to the community.
“Who knows what troubles added celebrity may cause? No thanks,” wrote Jean Armour, a long-time resident of Boca Grande. “I hope your board can protect us against such an attempted invasion of our autonomy and privacy.”
Jay Proops pointed out that parking is already an issue in Boca Grande, as are public bathrooms, and “doing anything to attract more visitors to our limited downtown area would only exasperate the situation. Why try and fix something that isn’t broken?”
Hartig, who has helped obtain historic designations for properties on the island, has said the proposal is an extension of her previous work and her belief that Boca Grande deserves national recognition.
But resident Eric Holch suggested in his email that “while putting Boca Grande on the national registry is quite an honor, I worry about the unintended consequences … Boca Grande is already enjoying a rebirth. Real estate is booming. We will continue to flourish naturally. But getting more publicity will not add to the enjoyment of our residents, it will diminish the enjoyment of the island.”
Support for the proposal came from Tom and Susan Bowers, who pointed out in their email that their home on Gilchrist was the former art studio of historic island figure, Frank Crowninshield, and that such a national designation would be “very important to us.”
Also endorsing the idea is Lynne Seibert, another longtime resident whose late husband Tim filled the architect’s position on the Historic Preservation Board for more than a decade. She told The Beacon that she is “shocked that people are upset or obsessing over this. The national register is merely a listing and is totally non-regulatory. It’s an honor and doesn’t affect anything else.”
Seibert also pointed out that the downtown commercial district has been on the national register since 2011, thanks to Hartig’s efforts, and includes St. Andrews Episcopal Church and the First Baptist Church on Gilchrist. Hartig was also retained by The Gasparilla Inn to do its application for the national register in 2008 she said, adding that “I am not aware of any regulatory problems with any of those listings.”
“When it comes to drawing visitors to Boca Grande, The Inn, the Internet and Facebook are the biggest draws. That horse left the barn a long time ago. I don’t think this will bring any more tourists than we already have,” Seibert added.
Earlier this week, Lee County Attorney Amanda Swindle said that Edgerton had requested a legal opinion on the benefits of a national (register) nomination, and that while no formal memorandum has been issued “…county staff believes that the existing local [historic] designation provides the same benefits that would inure to properties on the National Register, including relief from FEMA 50 percent rule for contributing properties.”
The FEMA rule limits structural improvements that can be done on a residence in a flood zone unless the property has been deemed historic.
In an email to Edgerton, she also pointed out that “historic preservation tax incentives are irrelevant to this residential nomination, as they can only be applied to income-producing properties.”
Swindle said that she and Lee County Planner Anthony Rodriguez will be available at the Historic Preservation Board meeting in March to answer the board’s questions on the issue.
The March 10 meeting will be held at 10 a.m. in the Community Center auditorium, which has limited capacity because of COVID restrictions. Edgerton said he is working with the Community Center to arrange more seating options, which could include overflow rooms or outside seating.