At left, Dennis Ross offered up some visual aids to argue for the NHR proposal. Photo by Susan H
BY SUSAN HANAFEE – Supporters of the proposal to include a portion of Boca Grande’s residential historic district on the National Register of Historic Places brought out the big guns from Gilchrist Avenue on Wednesday, March 10 to counter 165 emails opposing the plan received by the city’s Historic Preservation Board in recent weeks. While an overwhelming amount of people who have weighed in on this proposal are against it, the core group of supporters live on Gilchrist Avenue, and they brought all sorts of visual aids to help them in their cause.
But despite supporters’ complaints that the proposal had been clouded by misinformation, false media reports and hidden agendas, the board voted 4 to 2 against the plan. They concluded that it failed to meet the criteria of timely notification of the residents in the designated area. Their vote came after a warning from Lee County Attorney Amanda Swindle that while members of the public were free to comment on whether they liked or didn’t like the proposal, the board had to assess whether the nomination met existing criteria.
“This is not a popularity contest as to whether you like it or not,” she admonished.
The last time the BGHPB met to discuss this nomination in detail with the public, Swindle presented another ultimatum – she broke the nomination into two parts and told the board to “disregard” the portion of the plan that at that time included Gilchrist Avenue when they made their vote. In this newest presentation, Gilchrist Avenue is not considered to be contributing.
Board member Becky Paterson made the motion against the plan, objecting to this most recent proposal after earlier criticizing the author of the plan, Mikki Hartig, for “willy-nilly deciding to take it on yourself to create a national register district for us – to protect us from ourselves?”
Hartig, whose consulting business is in Sarasota, has helped obtain historic designations for several important properties on the island, including The Gasparilla Inn & Club. She told Paterson that she was moved to prepare the nomination because, as she said, “I first came here 25 years ago, and I love my Boca Grande.”
Hartig does not live on the island, nor has she ever. She has repeatedly insisted that no one hired her to go through with this particular nomination process and has said only that she felt it was time to do so.
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. Residents had to be notified of the proposal to include their residence so they could opt out via a notarized letter. Many claimed that had not happened, although Hartig said two letters from the county and two from the state went out to property owners, along with a legal notice.
Board members Paul Eddy and Guerrino Savio voted for the historic nomination to proceed to the next level. After some confusion on her final vote, Dana Robinette voted against it, joining board members Jerry Edgerton, Dennis Maloomian and, of course, Paterson, who made the original motion against it. Board member Bill Caldwell was not in attendance and could not vote, but sent a letter opposing the NHR proposal.
Savio also complained that he had not received copies of the 165 emails until the last minute, even though some had been released to the media beforehand. Edgerton countered that he personally had to set up the email address because of county regulations, and that he has turned over every email for inclusion in the public record.
Except for one supporting email from Gilchrist residents Tom and Susan Bowers, advocates for the listing in the national register had been mostly silent. On Wednesday they had their say, starting with Bob Fletcher, who brought visual aids and a determination to “set the record straight.”
“I did not plan to be involved until I attended the November meeting of this board and became aware of the misinformation – and disinformation – being circulated by the press and others, including being personally attacked in emails to county officials,” he said.
Fletcher pointed out that, despite the fact that Gilchrist Avenue had been removed from the proposed designation by Hartig after concerns raised by county commissioners, “the press and others continue to stir the pot and to blame the Gilchrist neighborhood for anything they don’t control.”
More to the point, Fletcher said that under federal law, a listing on the national register does not place any restrictions on the property listed. He cited a positive experience with having his property in Chautauqua, New York, on the registry.
However, after examining the idea of putting his home in Boca Grande on the national register, he said he decided not to proceed with the listing. “I learned a great deal, but most importantly that the national register was not in the regulatory business,” he added.
He did not include in his presentation information as to why he decided not to place his Boca Grande home on the NHR individually.
Following Fletcher was Pauline Lord, the great niece of the Louise Crowninshield. Lord, who owns two properties on Gilchrist Avenue, is also the granddaughter of Henry du Pont, who had a substantial number of homes on the island.
Lord said her aunt was a staunch supporter of preserving the historic elements of our landscape, which are under threat primarily by developers. She suggested that a National Historic Register designation could help Boca Grande residents better deal with the “long line of applicants” that would be seeking relief funds in the event of a devastating hurricane.
Dennis Ross was the third Gilchrist resident to express his support for the proposal. Ross, who circulated a three-page letter to his “neighbors” in early December, focused on what he saw as the benefits from inclusion on the NHR: A listing is an honorary matter and would create no additional federal oversight or regulation of homes; and there is the possibility for accelerated federal disaster relief as a result of a listing.
Also speaking in support of the proposal was Lynne Seibert, whose home is just outside the historic district. Seibert had endorsed the proposal previously and said she was “astounded by the disinformation” campaign against it.
“Relax, this is no big deal,” she added. Although limited in numbers because of the COVID restrictions in the Boca Grande Community Center Auditorium where the meeting was held, the opponents to Hartig’s proposal were vocal. Edgerton had earlier outlined the results of the emails sent to the board, citing the three primary reasons that opposition among residents was so strong.
“They said the process is suspicious and lacks transparency. Don’t tell me what I can do with my property. What is the impact on the community and quality of life on the island?”
Courtney McGovern, who owns a home in the area being nominated, echoed those concerns, saying she was perplexed as to why the board was having to consider this proposal since Hartig does not own a home on the island.
“I don’t understand why something that has been arbitrarily drawn up by a consultant needs to be imposed and mandated for every single person in this district,” she said.
McGovern said she was one of the people that believes the whole process is “suspect.” She did not receive any official notification or letters explaining what was going on, including the one Dennis Ross sent out in December. But she did get her tax bill. “I’m not sure why it was so hard to find me for this,” she said. “I am even more outraged when I hear that Mikki has been working on this for two years,” she added. “The audacity of one individual to impose this on multiples during a pandemic is unbelievable.”
Sam Hobbs, speaking for his mother Patricia Hobbs, said his family had been through this process in Delaware and even helped set up an historic overlay for the community where they lived.
“The county got involved and started creating new regulations and we ended up losing some of our land,” he said. The Hobbs family opposes the Boca Grande proposal because it was set up in a manner that was “arbitrary and capricious,” and did not even include his mother’s house, which was built in 1929.
“My mother was not on the island for many months and was not aware of any of this,” he pointed out.
Sally Downey, who has been coming to the island since 1983, thought she was the lone dissenter when the proposal was first introduced.
“I don’t believe now that is the case,” she said. “There are no benefits that we don’t already have. I don’t seek an honor that puts my address on the Lee County website. This designation is the least neighborly issue I can think of. I cannot register your house for the national designation, but a consultant can submit an application without telling us … that is being a bully.”
Among several others who spoke against the proposal was Mary O’Bannon, who pointed out that The Gasparilla Inn only sought its listing for the national register for itself. “They did not attempt to annex their entire neighborhood,” she said.
After the meeting ended, the Beacon asked Hartig what her plans were for the proposal. She responded that she was “not talking to the media.”
Swindle said the results of the local hearing, including the emails from residents and interested parties, will now go before the Lee County Board of County Commissioners. The matter could be heard on April 6. If both the local board and the commissioners oppose the nomination, the state will not proceed unless an appeal is filed.
In another matter, the board voted 4 to 2 to approve a project to modify the historic property at 921 9th Street West in Boca Grande. The property is a one-story residence built in 1925 that was rehabilitated in the 1990s. Changes to the property were approved by the board in October 2020 and have since been refined, the owner said.
The new plans call for the construction of an eight-foot-high privacy wall along part of the east side of the property, enlarging a screened porch and flanking rooms on the west side and modifications to the windows and doors of the existing guest house.
Corinna Hammond, also a Gilchrist resident in attendance, said she was curious about the eight-foot wall. “Who can have one and who cannot?” she questioned. “What is the criteria from going to six to eight feet.”
Anthony Rodriguez, who recently was promoted to Zoning Manager for Lee County, said that six feet walls are by county regulation, and that it is ultimately up to the historic preservation board to determine if relief can be provided to homes within the historic district.
Board member Guerrino Savio, who voted against the request, said the changes were too substantial for a historic home. Paul Eddy said he agreed with Savio. “It was approved once and was a bit controversial. Now they are coming back for more bites of the apple. The elements of preservation seem to be lost,” he said.
The board’s next meeting date is scheduled for April 14.