■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE
“Heard an old man by the pier asking where the time’s all gone, it’s been almost 50 years; my, how this place has grown.
“Used to come here by ferry before they built that big hotel; this old island feels the same, this old island is aging well. “
The pirates came to plunder as pirates always will. All these buildings make me wonder, are there not pirates living still?”
– Jim Morris
I was speaking with a friend recently about the little pieces of our island slowly being chipped away. It seems like every time you drive down a street, you see an empty lot or the beginnings of a new house where once stood a friend’s home. We eye homes up for sale with a feeling of dread, knowing that if a home sells, it may not be there next week. I know many of them are old and rotting, as homes by the ocean always do, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach for someone who loves nothing more than the smell of an old, well-loved house.
As we spoke we were looking out from my friend’s lanai at a home being “remodeled” just feet away. I swear it seemed like you could reach out and touch it. The original old home had disappeared well within the walls of the new structure … I could scarcely call it a “home.”
My friend mentioned a letter that had been written about this, more for the writer’s own peace of mind, to make the words tangible, more just to throw it out into the universe than anything else. I asked to read it, and after doing so I asked if I could use some of the thoughts contained within. I think it’s important to revisit this issue every now and again, in the hope we can continue to move forward in finding any way possible to preserve the “old Florida” integrity of the island.
Here are those thoughts:
I grew up in Naples in the early 1950s. In those years, Naples was a tranquil and pristine old Florida community with only 1,200 residents. The majority were native Florida families who held high respect and appreciation for nature, the environment, and were good stewards of the land.
The town council was primarily comprised of these long-time residents, and very early on they laid down strict building and density codes for any construction in our community, especially along the beach. These rules were strictly enforced.
The growth of Naples had not yet materialized, but we all knew full well that the paradise in which we lived would not remain a secret for very long. The unwritten policy at the time was to never let Naples evolve into the out-of-control building boom that was taking place on Florida’s “Gold Coast.”
Gradually the original members of the council retired and were replaced by others who did not have the same high respect for our community. These individuals had different priorities and were more interested in the “development dollar.” Their goals were more profit-oriented than community-based. Slowly but surely, they began to unwind the community safeguards that were in place.
As a result, we ended up with the Naples of today: Skyscraper condos on the beach blocked out views of the Gulf and limited public access to their own beaches. Also, the building density requirements were watered down so that developers could squeeze more family units into smaller land footprints – primarily by going taller.
As we had anticipated, Naples boomed, and the local infrastructure was unable to keep up with the population growth. Naples today is an overcrowded, gridlocked city in the season, where traffic moves at a snail’s pace. I still return home once in a while, but only during the quieter summer months.
I bought into Boca Grande in 1996 in order the escape the hometown that had outgrown me. I selected this island because it reminded me of the Naples of my youth.
Unfortunately, I am now beginning to see many of the same ills that negatively impacted Naples surfacing here. For a glimpse of this, all one has to do is travel down some of the island roads where once stood quaint old rustic Florida homes. They are purchased, summarily demolished, and new “mega- homes” are being built in their place. Many of these projects have preserved a portion of the original structure in order to obtain the classification of “remodel and addition.”
This status “grandfathers” them to use the base elevation of the prior home, so they can often add a second floor and still comply with the maximum building height restriction. So what we see today are mammoth structures that occupy every square inch of land area available in order to achieve the greatest square footage of living space.
They hug the north/south property lines, creating almost a solid wall along the beach, and they protrude out as far toward the Gulf as possible. However, at the culmination of construction the portion of the original structure that was supposedly preserved has, for the most part, mysteriously disappeared.
The GICIA has done a commendable job in guiding and protecting our island’s growth over the many years.
Unfortunately, it is apparent that the Lee County Building Plans Review Office in Fort Myers has not done the same. Fort Myers does not have Boca Grande’s best interests at heart, as demonstrated by some of these “mega-homes” being approved for building on our little island.
I’m trying to be delicate here and not sound elitist, but those home construction types that are deemed okay for the rest of Lee County may not be appropriate for our special island.
I realize that it is a big job and a lot of extra work, but would it not be possible for the GICIA to develop and enforce basic HOA-type building codes and regulations for future construction on our island?
A building review committee such as the one used in the Historical District could be entrusted to review and have final approval plans once they come out of Fort Myers.
This could help to stave off the Naples-ization or pirate-ization of Boca Grande.