By JIM COCHRUN,
I grew up in Naples in the early ’50s. In those years, Naples was a small, tranquil and pristine Old Florida community of 1,500 residents. The bulk of the population was comprised of native Floridian families who held high respect and appreciation for nature and the environment. They 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 the Florida gold coast.
Gradually the original members of the council retired and were replaced by others who did not have the same feelings 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 had been in place.
As a result, we ended up with the Naples of today, skyscraper condos on the beach blocking out views of the Gulf and limited public access to these beaches. Also, the building density requirements were watered down so that developers could now squeeze more family units into a smaller land footprint – primarily by going taller. As we had anticipated, Naples boomed and the local infrastructure was unable to keep pace. Naples today is now a year-round overcrowded community. ln season, it is a gridlocked city where traffic moves at a snail’s pace. I still return home once in awhile but only during the quieter, summer months.
I bought into Boca Grande in 1996 in order to escape the home town that had outgrown me. I selected this island because it reminded me of the Naples of my youth. Unfortunately, I see many of the same ills that negatively impacted Naples surfacing here on our little island. For a glimpse of this, all one has to do is travel around Boca Grande where the quaint, old rustic Florida homes have been 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 that they can often add a second floor and still comply with the maximum building height restriction.
What we see today are mammoth structures that occupy every square inch of land area available in order to achieve the maximum living space. They hug the property lines creating almost a solid wall along the beach and protrude as far out toward the Gulf as is 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 Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association 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 interest at heart as demonstrated by some of these mega-homes being approved for building on our little island. Trying to be delicate here and not sound elitist, but those home construction types that are deemed OK for the rest of Lee County may not be appropriate for our special island.
I realize that it is a big job taking on a lot of extra work, but would it not be possible for 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 Historic District could be entrusted to review and have final approval of plans once they come out of Fort Myers. This could help to stave off the Naples-ization or Pirate-ization of Boca Grande.
This brings to mind some relevant lyrics from the song,“This Old Island” by the late singer/song writer, Jim Morris, who lived in Southwest Florida and sang in many of the haunts in our area. It seems to me that he was referencing Boca Grande in this song:
“Heard an old man by the pier
Asking where’s the time all gone,
It’s been almost 50 years
My this place has grown.
Used to come here on the ferry
Before they built that big hotel
This old island feels the same
This old island is aging well
The pirates came to plunder
Jim Morris, This Old Island
As pirates always will.
All these buildings make me wonder
Are there not pirates living still.”
Editor’s note: Jim Cochrun describes himself as a “townie.” At the Boca Beacon, we value your essays and editorials. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org