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Issue 585

04/26/2012 at 4:47pm

County Commissioner Ray JudahJudah on Seafarers

Many of our readers have been wondering what is going on with the site where Seafarer's Mall used to sit. Most are aware that, a couple of years ago, the County Commission used Tourist Development Council (TDC) money to purchase both that property and the land that is now Crescent Beach Family Park and that the county decided to tear down the Mall building with the idea of turning the site into a parking lot. Since then nothing has happened and that has a lot of folks wondering why. Late Wednesday afternoon, the Sand Paper was invited to sit down with Commissioner Ray Judah, who explained the county's plans for the property both now and in the future.

"I want to alleviate everyone's concerns that this property will add to the traffic problem on Estero," Judah began. "And, first and foremost, I want to say that we plan to discuss all of this work with the Town Council as well as the local merchants in the area and get their input before we do anything."

Judah then gave a brief background of how the county had gained ownership of the site, explaining that, when they initially approached the seller about acquiring the beach property they were informed that the two properties were a package deal and that the county must buy them both.

"Getting that piece of the beach was so important to us that we agreed to purchase the Seafarer's property, too," he told us. "But the only way we could justify using TDC funding is if we used that site as an ancilliary use to the beach property - such as an at-grade parking lot. If we - or the Town or anyone who bought that property - did something else with the property they would have to pay the TDC back the $900,000. Even if the county put up a parking garage instead of an at-grade lot, we'd have to pay for it ourselves."

But the parking lot, Judah explained, is only the county's short-term plans for the property.

"Long-term, we'd like to acquire all the

properties around Seafarer's with the idea of ultimately rerouting Estero Boulevard," he said. "But there are several different property owners in that area - including John Richard, McDonald's, Helmrich and Huntingbird Parks - and the county does not have the money for that right now. Plus, who's to say that the owners would even be willing to sell? We may end up having to condemn those properties. Plus, all the utilities would need to be rerouted. Either way, it will be a mammoth capital improvement project. However, what's important to note is that we have acquired a sizeable piece of that puzzle with the Seafarer's property - which puts us on a good track for the future. In the meantime, why not use the property to generate funds to help manage Crescent Beach Family Park?"

Judah then explained several options that the county is looking at so that the planned parking lot doesn't exacerbate the traffic problem.

"We have hired the consulting firm of Morris and DePew to look at this area to see how best to do that, and some things we have come up with are: the creation of signage so that cars coming over the bridge are directed north onto Estero, right onto Old San Carlos, right onto 3rd Street, right onto Crescent Street and right onto 5th Street to get to the parking lot - with the only entrance and exit to and from the lot being onto 5th Street," he said. "This would keep people from making a left onto Estero and attempting to enter the lot via Crescent Street and blocking traffic up the bridge."

Judah said the county is also looking at removing the left turn onto Crescent and the possibility of working with local businesses to use the Seafarer's parking lot exclusively for their employees, thus preventing cars from coming in and out all day and freeing up tourist parking under the Matanzas Bridge.

"As far as the pedestrians walking across Estero, we plan to create some kind of blocker using either landscaping, short walls or ropes and ballards to guide them to cross where they do now - at the light," he said. "We also plan to look at the problem of people continually streaming across North Estero from Times Square onto Old San Carlos - perhaps putting up a signal light or asking the V.O.I.C.E. volunteers to help guide the pedestrians there."

Judah went on to say that the Florida Department of Transportation has currently embarked on an analysis of the trolley lane coming onto the beach so there may be some improvements there in the future, as well.

"But before we get ahead of Morris and DePew's recommendations and FDOT, we want to make sure that the mayor and the council are fully aware of everything before we move forward," he said. "All of these options will be fully vetted - including the possibility of the providing the Town with a percentage of the profits from the lot until they get enough money to pay back the TDC, at which point they could take ownership of the property themselves."

The commissioner then assured us that the county has no plans whatsover to sell the Seafarer's property to another party for development.

So what has been taking so long to move forward? According to Judah, the county is waiting on a legal opinion from the Town as to whether or not they will be required to ask for a zoning change or an amendment to the Town's comprehensive plan before they apply for permits.

"A number of years ago, there was an agreement made between the Town, Huntingbird Parks and Seafarer's in regards to access to their properties," he said. "That expires on May 6th, and the county is looking to that date to begin the rezoning process as the property is now zoned CPD (Commercial Planned Development). When we asked Town Attorney Marilyn Miller if rezoning would be all that we need, she initially said yes but later told us that it might require an amendment to the comp plan. We are now trying to get - in writing - exactly what's required. We want to work with the Town to get this done but we need a definitive opinion. We don't have to apply for a permit to get a legal opinion."

Judah said that a zoning change would likely take 4-6 months, while an amendment to the comp plan could take more than a year.

"Once we get that opinion, we plan to move forward - with assurances to everyone that this won't exacerbate the traffic problem," he said.

We asked the commissioner about Councilwoman Jo List's plan to work with the kids at Beach Elementary to create artwork on the fence around the site until work on the parking lot begins, and he told us that the county is waiting to hear back from the school.

"I've talked to artist Leoma Lovegrave, and I know she would love to hold an art day on the site where she could teach the kids art," he said. "We are just waiting to hear back from Beach Elementary so we can put all of this together."

Judah concluded our meeting by saying that Crescent Beach Family Park will likely be getting some much-needed shelter areas for shade later this summer.

"We have an artist under contract who is customizing a couple of shelters in a creative, thoughtful way to look like seagrape leaves," he said. "They will use native plants as a canopy and provide shade."

Keri Hendry