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Editorial 617

Missy Layfield - Editor

Back To The Future

With an improving economy, some of our old challenges have reappeared.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s and even before that, growth in Southwest Florida was explosive. The demand for housing and commercial development came so fast and furious that planners, both government and private, struggled to keep up with it all.

Mistakes were made. Corners were cut. Roads went through some areas they shouldn’t have. Development was approved in some areas that might not have been approved had more time and careful attention been paid. In some ways it was the wild, wild west of the development world.

Those days could be characterized as a constant tug of war between developers and those concerned with uncontrolled growth, with the developers winning by a landslide, excuse the pun, in many cases.

The very existence of our Town of Fort Myers Beach can be traced, at least in part, to Lee County’s approval of some high-rise buildings on the beach that Islanders objected to.After several failed attempts at incorporation, that seemed to be the final straw and Islanders approved incorporation and hence self-determination in 1995.

Fast forward to 2012. We are coming out of a 5-year economic slump. There are lots of indicators, but the most telling is the resurrection of major development projects that have been sitting idle for years.

You’ll read about one of those on San Carlos Island in this week’s paper –Ebbtide. A Lee County Hearing Examiner hearing concluded this week with the airing of public comment on the project.

While there were some absolute objections to the project’s existence, there was also support for it.The Town’s position is that they have no objection to the project, but wish to see some serious attention paid to traffic impact as well as back bay impact.

They have good reason to be concerned, certainly as far as traffic impact. Of course there are dueling traffic impact studies. The developer’s and the Town’s come to far different conclusions. The developer’s traffic study finds that this big development will not create any more traffic –not on San Carlos Blvd, not on Estero Blvd.Their traffic consultant says the project will improve Main Street traffic.

Oh, happy day!

I’m no engineer – most of us aren’t. But as a lay person, looking at the development plans, which look like a beautiful addition to San Carlos Island, I have to look at what is in that area now and what will be there when they are done.

The developer’s claim that there will be the same number of residences is true. What is not mentioned is that less than 150 of the current housing units in the location are in a year-round RV park. Over 120 units are seasonal according to the RV parks’ websites. But let’s say that’s a wash and you end up with the same number of housing units that you had before.

If the traffic from those 271 units was the only traffic, there might not be an issue.

But that is not the only traffic to consider.

The Ebbtide development will add, over and above what is already there, the following: 450 hotel rooms, 300 more boat slips and 130,000 square feet of retail and convention center space.

Those rooms and slips and that convention and retail space will surely bring more people and traffic down Main Street. If it doesn’t attract more people than currently use that road, this project is going to be in financial trouble in a hurry.

I don’t need an expensive traffic impact study to tell me that adding that many hotel rooms alone will add traffic.

Where will hotel guests want to go? The beach, most likely.

How are they going to get to the beach? Their cars, most likely.

The original plans talked of a water taxi and shuttle, though there are no plans yet for a landing location on Estero Island for a water taxi. And the developer’s attorney told the hearing this week that both the shuttle and water taxi would be open to the public –"if needed.” Sounds like backpedaling to me.

What roads will these cars use? Main Street and Buttonwood. Right now a left turn from Main onto San Carlos Blvd during season is a death-defying act. Without two full lanes at the intersection, even those turning right will be backed up. Buttonwood is also not designed to hold a lot of extra traffic and even with the light there, turning left is a challenge in season.

There are plenty of us who are happy to see development -- careful, well-designed development take place in our area. It’s a big plus for the community. Ebbtide looks like a great addition to our community offering retail, meeting and hotel space as our economy grows.

Everything about this project looks like it’s been thoughtfully and carefully designed – except for a traffic impact study that seems to defy common sense.

As this and any future development moves forward, let’s take a realistic view of what the impacts really are and do the best we can to temper those on the front end of the project.

Missy Layfield