■ BY MARCY SHORTUSE
It was a very large crowd of islanders who took their seats a few minutes after 2 p.m on Tuesday, Nov. 5 in the Boca Grande Community Center auditorium. As Lee County Director of Parks & Recreation Jesse Lavender called the public hearing regarding the proposed dog park on Wheeler Road to order, people settled in for what they thought would be a long afternoon.
In fact, the meeting was over before it began. When everyone had been seated and the voices hushed, Lavender addressed the crowd and showed them he is a man of few words.
“There hasn’t been a complete recommendation until this point,” he said, regarding the dog park proposition. “I would ask that you fill out the ballots and take everything into consideration.”
The ballots Lavender referred to were handed out to everyone at the meeting. On them were three voting options – Option A, defined as a fenced-in enclosure (0.91 combined acres) for both small and large dogs, including paved parking, shade structures, an interior perimeter walkway, shade trees, a dog wash area and site amenities such as signage and benches, trash cans, dog waste stations, a bicycle rack and a drinking fountain; Option B, defined as a fenced-in enclosure of 0.72 combined acres, including parking for people with disabilities, a dog wash area and site amenities such as signage, benches, trash bins, waste bag dispensers and receptables, a bicycle rack and a drinking fountain; and Option C, which was to make no improvements to the land at the end of Wheeler Road owned by Lee County.
Because Option A was slightly more opulent than Option B, the County indicated it would not be able to be completed until 2024. Option B could be completed by next year.
“If you were wondering why we did it this way, obviously the former dog park was not a County property, and I didn’t realize the whole project was happening as soon as it was, with the (Gasparilla Inn) Beach Club development,” he said. “I didn’t realize we were losing it so quickly, and I was too far along in the budget process to come up with the money to do something more substantial. Option B is fairly primitive, compared to option A, which would need to be factored into a future budget, as it would require hundreds of thousands of dollars to get there.”
Lavender then said he would not be taking any questions at the meeting.
“If you haven’t had a chance already to talk to me or my staff, I’ve had well more than 100 emails and phone calls, so I think you all know how to get hold of me. If you are for the dog park, check both boxes A and B. That means you would want us to proceed with option B, then eventually go to option A.”
Lavender also very briefly acknowledged the contingency of Wheeler Road neighbors who were not backing the dog park plan.
“I understand the neighborhood feedback and am taking that into light,” he said. “Everything we have gathered today will be brought to County administration, and we will have a discussion on it. Ultimately this could go to the commissioners to approve this.”
When asked, Lavender said he would look through the votes that were cast at the meeting and use them in a decision-making process.
Another sheet of paper was handed out at the dog park meeting. It was a message from some Wheeler Road residents who wanted to explain their onfusion and feelings on the matter.
“Many of us have and love dogs,” it read. “Please do not interpret our objection to the proposed Wheeler Dog Park as a referendum on dogs.”
The reasons listed for opposition to the plan included the fact that Wheeler Road is a short dead-end road without a structured turnaround, because of the already considerable traffic burden on the street (farmer’s market on Fridays, overflow parking for the beach parking lot, parking for Range Light tours, public tennis courts, public restrooms, vehicles from the County’s Department of Public Works (their maintenance shed is at the end of the road) and police department vehicles (two deputies live at the end of Wheeler).
The group also cited safety as an obvious reason for opposition.
“Significantly increasing an already unruly and regular traffic flow concerns us,” it read. “Our grandchildren, elderly parents, family members and friends will all be at greater risk of injury. This is unacceptable to us, and we believe should be to all island residents.”