When three new Town Council members
were elected in March, we all expected there to be some changes. Our
Town leadership was already in transition after Manager Terry
Stewart’s departure in January and Manager Don Stilwell’s arrival
shortly thereafter. Just since January, our Town’s professional
staff is down a Zoning Director, a Community Development Director and
a Director of Public Works. Only the Public Works Director position
has been filled.
Let’s define a professional staff
position as one that requires a Master’s Degree with specialty
certification. While we benefit from excellent support staff at Town
Hall, it is unfair to them and us to expect them to do the job of a
Any businessperson can tell you that
one of the classic signs of a business in trouble is high turnover,
so that kind of exodus spells instability and begs the question…Why
are they leaving?
On a basic level, some quit, some were
fired. But anyone who is familiar with human resources management
knows that there can be a very thin line between the two. As
citizens, the method of departure is not nearly as important as the
effect of the departure. An experienced professional staff member who
was doing the work of the Town is no longer doing that work.
Other staff members have stepped up to
try and fill the gaps and done an admirable job of it. We don’t
know how long they can hold that pace. Are we risking more staff
departures due to overwork? Last month alone, the Community
Development Department received 253 permit applications, the highest
in over 5 years. Since January, they have reviewed over 2,200 plans.
Over two thousand. And they did it with half the professional staff
that they had a year ago. Do we have enough of the right professional
staff to do the job we need them to do?
For a while now, we’ve been hearing
that streamlining the permit process is a high priority. Residents
and businesses have called for a streamlined, more efficient process.
With a record 25 single-family home permits on the island last year,
you can bet that homebuilders are also very interested in a
While some might be thrilled if all
permit and building activity ground to a complete stop for the next
20 years or so, most of us want our Town to be a vibrant and
economically healthy community, and that means change, building and
renovation. And permits, lots of them.
While the Town is surely saving a lot
of money by not hiring planning and development professionals to fill
the empty positions, surely we are running the risk of legal
liability if something is not handled correctly. By now Town
leadership has surely noticed that it can be expensive when permits
are not handled by the book.
That book being the Land Development
The Town was sued by a developer in
January after permits were denied. In that case, a less than
crystal-clear LDC led to a variety of interpretations and some high
attorney bills for everyone, including us.
Now we have Town Council stating that
any questionable permit must come to and be approved by Town Council.
There has been no clear description of what constitutes
Does this apply to all permits, or
just single family home permits? Does a single-family home
application from the Shell Mound neighborhood that has received all
required approvals and meets all set back standards need to go to
Town Council? How about a home with all the same approvals and set
back standards on Palermo?
We can’t pick and choose which
application gets extra scrutiny based on neighborhood or developer.
That is discriminatory and punitive and will surely lead us back to
another round of legal fees.
Town Council has made it clear that
they are responsible for final decisions on permits. We hope they
realize that those decisions can only be based on the LDC. The
desires and preferences of neighbors cannot control what permits are
approved. For example, if Council were to acquiesce to a neighborhood
that decided that they didn’t want any purple houses, Council would
have to amend the LDC to state that before they could reject any
purple house plan. And we’d better make sure the LDC was crystal
clear on the issue, or we’d be looking at more costly legal
challenges such as we’ve had.
It’s time for Town leadership to
focus on what is best for our Town as a whole and not just on
appeasing a small vocal group of emotionally charged residents.
Whether they are family, friends or neighbors, Town Council has the
duty to represent all of the citizens on Fort Myers Beach.
That means going by the book so the
Town is not put through more legal battles.
Leadership requires doing the right
thing, which is often the hardest thing. Our Town right now needs
some real leadership and focus on the big picture.
We’ll emerge from the Palermo
lawsuit, but there will be more in our future unless and until we are
willing to take a hard look at our LDC and clarify the gaps and
ambiguous language that brought the whole elevated pool controversy
to us and our wallets. The LDC is not fine just the way it is. Come
to the LPA month after month and watch how many sections are being
The LDC needs to be reviewed and
Let’s do this the right way. Let’s
do what is best for our Town and ALL of its residents.