BY MARCY SHORTUSE – What a difference a week can make, in terms of changing the light shone on a specific, tricky issue like the recent nomination of the Boca Grande residential district to the National Historic Registry.
Last week we reported that a nomination to the NHR had been made for parts of the downtown residential historic district by Mikki Hartig, owner of Historical & Architectural Research Services out of Sarasota, who has worked on Boca Grande projects in the past. While Hartig did not disclose at whose request she filled out the paperwork for the nomination (as she is not a property owner on the island and does not live here or own a business here in any capacity), she did mention that the “sponsor” of the nomination was to be the National Association of Olmsted Parks. We will get more into that further into the story.
On the day that we went to press last week – Thursday, Sept. 17, Hartig made a presentation to the Lee County Historic Preservation Board. This is a seven-member board appointed by the Lee County Commission to administer the Lee County Historic Preservation regulations (Land Development Code Chapter 22), and provide input about matters affecting the preservation of Lee County’s historic resources.
After obtaining some video footage and court reporter’s notes from the meeting, held in Fort Myers, it turns out that Hartig actually asked for a vote from the board, instead of asking them to withhold judgment, which she told this newspaper she did right at press time last week.
While there is no answer as to why she said one thing and actually did the other, one thing is clear: The reason that island residents and organizations – including the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association, who had their attorney present at the meeting – had to scramble to make the meeting where Hartig intended to take the first steps to push this nomination through, is because no one was aware the village had even been nominated. The majority of the island parties who were in attendance at that meeting, in fact, had only found out about this being on the agenda the night before.
This led to a lot of speculation regarding subterfuge, as you can imagine. Whether it was intended or not remains to be seen. What can be unequivocally stated is that this is the first time in history, at least since the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board has been in existence, that Boca Grande representatives bypassed their own community and local governing board.
Hartig did give a reason as to why she went to the Lee County Historic Board with the nomination first, but the rationale is somewhat flawed. The Lee County Historic Preservation Board was known as the only “Certified Local Government Board” prior to the creation of the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board. However, after the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board was created, national register nominations were few and it seemed the Boca Grande community and the BGHPB always reached a consensus prior to having a nomination brought before the Lee County Historic Preservation Board. That’s why this was an unprecedented move.
There were numerous erroneous facts in Hartig’s nomination paperwork (including the statement that the Gasparilla Act was created in 1966), so much so that the state has already said it will have to amend the paperwork.
To say the project is not off to a good start is an understatement.
The “pros” of being placed on the National Historic Register
There are some good things about being placed on the National Historic Register, there is no question about that. According to Lee County Communications Director Betsy Clayton, “Under Federal Law, listing in the National Register places neither restrictions nor requirements on a private property owner. Properties may be altered within the framework of local laws or ordinances. Properties are not required to be maintained in any specific way and may be demolished without federal permission. However, if the property is involved in a project that receives Federal assistance (usually funding or licensing/permitting), and federal monies are attached to the property, then any changes to the property have to allow the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to comment on the project.
“The listing of a property or district on the National Register of Historic Places is an honorific recognition that also allows eligibility for certain Federal tax provisions, Federal tax deductions for charitable contributions for conservation purposes of partial interests in historically important land areas or structures, and qualification for Federal grants for historic preservation, when funds are available.”
You can also read island resident Lynne Seibert’s letter on page 5 of this week’s paper to find out more about the positive side of the nomination.
However, not all is as it seems …
Let’s talk about FEMA’s SI/SD rule (Substantial Improvement/Substantial Damage)
One of the biggest concerns for people who live in an older home is the threat of damage or a need for renovation. We are all somewhat familiar with FEMA’s “50 percent” rule, which states that if an older structure that isn’t built “to code” is damaged or needs to be renovated, if the renovations change more than 50 percent of the home’s current stature, the home must be made compliant with current standards.
A large part of the information Hartig has imparted to residents and in her National Historic Register proposal hinge on the fact that inclusion on the Register would mean exemption from that FEMA rule. In fact, though, many authorities have claimed that any home listed as “contributing” at this time on the island could already have that status.
Let’s take flooding as an example. According to Lee County’s web site, the National Flood Insurance Program requires that any structure in an A or V flood zone, where the cost of repairing a structure equals or exceeds 50 percent of the value of the structure, must be brought into compliance with current flood damage prevention regulations. However, it also says that, “Historic structures may be exempt from these requirements if the compliance would threaten the structure’s continued eligibility for historic designation.”
This includes structures that are considered by local entities to be “contributing.”
This fact was confirmed by Clayton.
“Historically contributing structures can be exempt from the 50 percent rule,” she said. “This not only applies in national designation – FEMA also has general levels that they recognize. Lee County takes it case by case, building by building.”
You see, historic structures are also designated as a historic property under the county ordinance (Chapter 22 Historic Preservation of the Lee County Land Development Code), either individually or as a contributing property in a district, as the Lee County program is approved by the Department of the Interior through the Florida Department of State.
Aside from flooding, as a general rule, structures that are damaged for any reason – be it fire, termites or a meteor strike – may be rebuilt, as they were if they were legally conforming at the time of destruction. Many buildings in the Boca Grande Historic District do not conform to setback and other requirements, and Chapter 22 (Historic Preservation) of the Land Development Code provides an easy administrative process to bring historic properties into compliance with zoning and other land development regulations.
How does the Gilchrist median, a.k.a. the “Public Plaza” figure into this nomination?
In addition to the total lack of public input, the other problem is the inclusion of the Gilchrist Avenue in the nomination. This is problematic because for years the Boca Grande community had argued about the Gilchrist Ave median. Only recently did it appear that a truce had been made, and a consensus been reached as to how to handle the median strip.
This nomination not only includes Gilchrist Avenue, with the median being called a “public plaza” instead of what it is – a median strip – there is little definition in the nomination as to how much importance the Gilchrist Avenue median strip has regarding placement on the National Historic Register: It appears, in fact, as though the nomination may hinge on its existence as an historic entity, which could certainly be argued. If the homes on Gilchrist Avenue are what the state considers to be of utmost importance, that makes sense. If it is the median strip, though, particularly if it is based on the historical significance that it is an Olmsted project, that is simply not correct.
Not to mention, slipping a nomination that includes the Gilchrist Avenue median into this nomination flies in the face of the recently-created consensus, and once again forces people to take sides on an issue that should have been put to bed already.
As of press time we were unable to reach the one objective source that would be able to confirm or deny Gilchrist Avenue’s importance in this nomination – the office of Ruben Acosta, Survey and Registration Supervisor for the Bureau of Historic Preservation Division of Historical Resources.
From what we understand as of press time, phone calls were made to her office asking that the Gilchrist Median be taken out of the equation, and the response to those phone calls was that the nomination hinged on “Gilchrist.”
On Sept. 5, 2013 a memorandum was directed to Mary Gibbs, the director of Lee County Community Development, from Assistant County Attorney John Fredyma. Gibbs had asked Fredyma if the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board had the authority to designate Gilchrist Avenue as an “historic resource,” pursuant to Land Development Code Chapter 22. Apparently there was some anxiety as to how Lee County DOT could manage maintaining and improving a road (and median) that was part of an historic preservation program.
Fredyma’s answer was succinct: No. Then he explained.
According to Chapter 22 of the Lee County Land Development Code, a historic resource is, by definition, “any prehistoric or historic district, site, building, structure, object or other real or personal property of historical, architectural or archaeological value. Historic resources include, but are not limited to, monuments, memorials, Indian habitations, ceremonial sites, abandoned settlements, sunken or abandoned ships, engineering works or other objects with intrinsic historical or archaeological value …”
Fredyma told Gibbs in that missive that the while Gilchrist Avenue was in an historic district, a road or street was not the type of property that could be considered as an “historic resource.”
Fredyma also said that such a nomination would hinder the county’s ability to remain “unfettered in its ability to maintain and operate a public road in a manner that advances public safety for both vehicles and pedestrians,” and that, overall, such a designation would be an “inappropriate delegation of authority.”
The Olmsted Factor
One of the most significant topics that Hartig covered in her presentation to the Lee County Historic Preservation Board in Fort Myers was the contribution to village plans made by the Olmsted Brothers, a firm that has been known worldwide for more than a century.
A document prepared by the Gilchrist Neighborhood Association in 2014 states that Carl Rust Parker, a prominent landscape architect of his time who periodically worked for the Olmsted firm, had laid plans for Gilchrist Avenue and the median. However, it erroneously says that Parker worked for the Olmsted firm during the time period when negotiations were being transacted between the American Agricultural Chemical Company and the Olmsted Firm. In fact, Parker was on hiatus from that firm during that time when he did any work in Boca Grande.
After much research of the 297 pages of documents located in the Library of Congress archives online, though, a totally different story is portrayed.
In 1924 an agreement was reached between AACC and the Olmsteds to do some planning work on the island. The Olmsted firm started sending people to the island in late 1924, and in 1925 correspondence began in earnest to create blueprints. Lithographs were subcontracted through the Walker firm, and those were delivered.
Past that, though, the correspondence between the Olmsted brothers and their employees and AACC was strained from the beginning: It appeared they could not agree on anything other than some plans for concrete birdbaths to be placed around town (Mr. Peterkin from AACC had an affinity for the local birds, and wanted to make sure they always had fresh water), and that some casuarina trees should be planted.
About midway through the project it got so bad that the Olmsted representative on the island, whose last name was Phillips, said that everyone at AACC was so displeased with the Olmsted project that “the ground (was) littered with heads.”
Halfway through 1925 the Olmsted brothers told Peterkin at AACC they would no longer be working with them. Peterkin insisted on being sent the original blueprints and notes, and there was even an argument about that. By July of 1925, the relationship was completely severed and all of Olmsted’s employees had left the island.
In a Historic American Landscapes Survey written by the National Parks Service/Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. it mentions the Olmsted/AACC relationship. It states, “The biggest change made by the Olmsted Brothers was moving the railroad away from the coast, from 6th Street to the northern tip of the island, and the design of estate-sized lots in its place.”
No mention of Parker was made in any of the 297 pages of documents available through the Library of Congress.
What we do know about the landscaping on Gilchrist since the early part of the previous century is that Louise DuPont Crowninshield and her friends took a keen interest in keeping the plants and trees on the median alive and refreshed. There are historic accounts of Crowninshield asking her good friend Mary Frances Thompson, known as “Mama Dear,” to use her old car to lug water to take to the plants. In the 1970s, Nat Italiano and his friends paid for palm trees to be planted on the median. The median plantings have always been a labor of love created by island residents, not by outside elements.
The bottom line is this – Being one block from the Gulf of Mexico, the vegetation on Gilchrist Avenue has always had to battle to stay alive. Storms, drought and other forces of nature have always taken their toll. It has been an ever-evolving process to keep plants and trees on that strip of grass.
The nomination presented by Hartig acknowledges that Parker had a hand in designing the landscaping, and that he at some point worked for Olmsted, but we know he was not directly employed by him at the time … nor was the full plan implemented.
Not to mention, no one said a word when the casuarina trees planted on the 5th Street median were cut down.
A conflict of interests?
Lastly, there is another strange aspect to this nomination. The National Register Review Board currently has three members. Marion Almy is one of them. On October 29, 2014 the Gilchrist Neighborhood Association and Archaeological Consultants Inc. presented a report called “Historic Context: Boca Grande, Lee County, Florida, Gilchrist Ave.” On one of the first few pages of the document, Almy was listed as the project manager, hired by the Gilchrist Neighborhood Association.
This report detailed the historic significance of Gilchrist Avenue median, and the street, and it was presented to the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board. They took no action at that time.
UPDATE: Meetings on the local and state levels regarding this issue are changing. We will keep you updated when we have confirmations.