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Editorial 695

Missy Layfield - Editor


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 degreed professional.

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 streamlined process.

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 Code.

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 "questionable.”

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 amended.

The LDC needs to be reviewed and revised.

Let’s do this the right way. Let’s do what is best for our Town and ALL of its residents.

Missy Layfield