National Historic Register talk postponed, Joiner renovation approved 4-2

BY MARCY SHORTUSE- At the Wednesday, Oct. 14 meeting of the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board, it was not the obvious agenda item that created the most controversial topic of conversation … in fact that item was not discussed at all. As it turned out, the second time around was a charm for a long-time island resident and property owner in the downtown historic district, who had asked the board for approval once before for permission to renovate and add on to her home … but it was not without some very interesting discussion and headbutting.

Discussion that was slated regarding the National Historic Registry nomination for parts of the residential downtown historic district homes was tabled until November 10, the board’s next meeting date. Lee County Principal Planner Anthony Rodriguez stated that was because homeowners within the proposed district had not been given proper notice in time for that discussion, as letters just went out within the last two week. That was just as well, considering the meeting had already gone on for two hours before that item came up on the agenda and the postponement announcement was ever made.

One of the two controversial homes, a property owned by Betsy Joiner and located at 381 Tarpon Ave., was moved to its current location by Joiner in 1990. Built in 1939, it had originally been located on Park Avenue, but when the new Boca Grande Health Clinic plans included purchase of that land, Joiner saved the home and moved it to a double lot on Tarpon Avenue. In 2004, when Hurricane Charley struck, it was badly damaged and she saved it a second time. In 2014, Joiner supported changing the status of the home from non-contributing to contributing. 

At a BGHPB meeting in March, Joiner was asking for permission to renovate and expand the home, but the consensus from the board was that Joiner’s plan was too big in scale for the neighborhood. At the meeting this week Joiner was back, and with her came her architect, T.A. Krebs, and historical consultant Gloria Sajgo.

The plan includes relocating the house on the existing site by moving it, so it is located entirely on one lot. The original house has a footprint of 1,206 square feet, so it would fit easily into the proposed area. The plan also includes elevating the home to meet FEMA flood standards, rehabilitating the existing structure to maintain its historic character, and creating a 2,229 square foot edition, which would bring the entire home’s footprint to 3,844 square feet.

Discussion on this proposal hadn’t even begun when Board President Jerry Edgerton asked Board Member Paul Eddy to recuse himself from the vote. It is no secret to anyone who lives in that area that Eddy had been making phone calls and speaking to nearby residents, asking them to send letters and emails to Lee County in opposition of the project (Eddy himself lives on that street). Eddy has made no bones about vocalizing his opposition to the project since it was first presented to the board in March. 

Eddy refused, and told the board he had confirmed with Lee County counsel that the application did not create a conflict of interest as he did not have any particular pecuniary interest in the property. He said it was also confirmed by the Pavese Law Firm.

Edgerton rebutted by reading into record the code of ethical conduct for Lee County, in particular that “It is the policy of Lee County through the Board of County Commissioners (“Board”) that all Lee County employees are expected to conduct their professional and personal lives in a completely ethical, truthful, and honorable manner in all dealings with the public and other County employees.

“All Lee County employees, including the Board’s Contract Employees (the County Manager, County Attorney, and Hearing Examiner), will conduct themselves in a professional and personal manner so as to maintain public confidence in their profession, their county government, and the public trust … No employee shall use or attempt to use his or her position, or any property or resource which may be within his/her trust, to secure special privileges, benefits, or exceptions for himself/herself or for others.”

Board Member Dana Robinette said, “When you all approved my house I could have voted for it … you all did, I didn’t have to.”

Board Member Becky Paterson said from what she understood, part of the issue was that many of the letters of opposition received by Lee County regarding Joiner’s proposed addition were solicited by Eddy, and that in doing so the matter could run into “due process.”

Robinette replied, “No one can be forced to write a letter.”

The letters they referred to were 31 in total – 14 for the project, 16 against. Those that were against were all worded slightly differently, but all said the same thing … they felt the proposed plan was not in keeping with the neighborhood. 

Some referred to the size of the home. In truth there are several homes that far exceed this proposed plan’s footprint. The home at 280 Palm Avenue is a single-family, contributing residence at a size of 4,977 square feet, and new construction at 411 Lee Avenue has a 3,733 square foot footprint. Both were approved by the BGHPB in recent years.

Lee County Attorney Amanda Swindle said that Florida statues regarding conflicts such as this are very clear, and that based on the facts as she understood them, there was no need for abstention as there was no pecuniary interests or contractual relationships between Joiner and Eddy. However, there is a provision in Florida statute that provides that the official decision in a quasi-judicial proceeding made by a board member should be withheld, and that board member should abstain, if that board member cannot make a fair and unbiased decision. Swindle directly asked Eddy if he felt he could do that.

“Betsy is a wonderful person,” he said. “She has been a very good neighbor on Tarpon, people love her, and she has done wonderful things in the community. This has nothing to do with Betsy Joiner. This has to do with what we were charged with, as board members, and that we are charged with performing a particular service to the community. My job is to proceed and vote as I feel appropriate.”

Swindle then addressed a potential Sunshine Law issue, which prohibits any discussion of the case with another board member. Eddy said that had not occurred. Swindle said then if Eddy did not choose to take advantage of the ability to abstain that had been provided, that it appeared as though there was no problem.

Board Member Billy Caldwell said that he had received a call from a neighbor who was “horrified” after receiving a phone call on their answering machine from Nancy Eddy, Paul’s wife. When she returned the call she said both Paul and Nancy Eddy put her on speakerphone, and they both talked back and forth with this person.

“She couldn’t believe the ethics of our group here would allow that to happen,” Caldwell said. “This won’t go to a courtroom to see if it is legal or not, but I would think from a moral standpoint that Mr. Eddy should recuse himself because he broke the Sunshine Law, and if that person happened to be here today she could testify that was the case.”

Swindle said a Sunshine Law violation could happen through an intermediary, but she wasn’t present for that phone call to know the facts. She said it could, though, be a violation of the Sunshine Law, and if a violation was found it could, in fact, void all decisions made in the proceeding that day regarding that issue.

Board member Dennis Maloomian said he believed this was an issue of “optics,” and that the board had an issue of credibility with the public now due to Eddy’s actions.

Rodriguez addressed the board then and said that the applicant had made efforts to address the concerns presented at the March meeting, when the board denied the proposal. 

“I will say, overall, the proposal remains the same, but there have been changes made with respect to specifics,” he said. 

Board discussion on the home was limited, other than Eddy asking where the storm water runoff would go, as the home would be slightly elevated. Paterson reminded him there was a storm drain network on that street. 

When Eddy insinuated that other nearby buildings could potentially be victim to compromised foundations by excessive water runoff, Krebs said he found that comment ridiculous, as he is a licensed architect and has been for many years, and he would never do that.

Eddy also stated that when houses were jacked up and moved, as was proposed in this COA, they went from being contributing to non-contributing. Paterson reminded him that the home itself was contributing, not the property it had been moved to just 30 years ago.

Public comment included letters of praise from neighbors who thought it was a good proposal, and a comment from island resident Lynne Seibert. Seibert had written letters regarding her opposition to the project, and read one to the board that stated they seemed to be “making it up as they went along” regarding what they did and did not approve, and said the street was “in danger of losing character and scale.”

Paterson said Seibert’s comments appeared to take the Lee Plan’s vision as law, which was not the case, and said she was very much in favor of the new plan.

Eventually the board voted, with four board members approving the plan and two board members – Eddy and Robinette – opposing it.

The other home that elicited discussion was the Wood residence at 921 9th St. W. The proposal included a rehabilitation and addition to a small, somewhat forlorn cottage that the architect called “Dutch Colonial” in nature. The board wavered back and forth in determining whether it was too large, and whether that style of home fit in to the neighborhood.   

Caldwell said it was true that old homes on island should be preserved, but the existing home there was not a very pretty house. 

“I think it needs major work,” he said, “and it looks like the owner is ready to invest substantial funds to make it look all put together.”

Robinette disagreed with the choice of architectural style and the overall flavor of the larger house, and said, “If they can build anything they want, why do we have this committee?”

Eddy said he didn’t believe it conformed to the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines, and that it would “destroy what is characteristic of what is Boca Grande.” 

The board voted to allow the project, with four voting yes and two voting no.

In other board action, approval was given to three other projects:

• 580 5th Street, a proposed extension of the roof on the existing garage;

• 1600 E. Railroad Ave., the installation of a chain link fence and two gates;

• 361 Lee Ave.,  the rehabilitation and addition to a non-contributing residence