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4 days ago, 01/22/2015 at 4:50pm

Rodney SlaterFormer Transportation Secretary
Speaks to Council

The Town Council had quite a bit on their plate at their workshop on Monday afternoon, beginning with a joint meeting with the Local Planning Agency (LPA) and ending with a presentation from former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater on what he thinks can be done, if anything, to address the issue of excessive airplane noise brought to council by the group Aircraft Intrusion Relief (AIR).

During the meeting with the LPA, the members reported that they were beginning a review of the Town’s Comprehensive Plan, something required by state law every seven years as part of the Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR).

Mayor Anita Cereceda pointed out that the EAR needs to be complete by 2016.

"Is there a form that needs to be followed for that appraisal?” she asked, and Principal Planner Megan Will said she’s not aware of one and suggested that the LPA continue with their review after which it will go to Council for public input.

"It would be good to look at how decisions made in the last few years have been relevant to the comp plan and compare it with when we first started - are we in sync?” the Mayor said.

Town Attorney Derek Rooney suggested looking at the recommendations made during the previous EAR and see what’s been implemented and is working and what hasn’t.

LPA Vice-Chair Joanne Shamp then said they have been working on a new disaster preparedness plan, and they found that - after a disaster - there is some leeway in determining what can be rebuilt without having to adhere to new FEMA base flood elevation rules.

"The feeling of the LPA when we’re looking at estimations of replacement costs is to be a little more lenient as the rules allow us to do so,” she said, and Council agreed after hearing from Rooney that it would not effect the Town’s flood insurance rating.

Other concerns included safety issues with non-compliant rentals being rebuilt following a hurricane, whether or not to allow administrative variances in a post-disaster situation, what would happen to Time Square should a storm cause total destruction there and post-disaster communication.

"We’re just trying to pre-think these things so it goes smooth in the case of a disaster,” Shamp said, and Cereceda suggested asking Will and Senior Planner Matt Noble to reach out to other communities to see how they deal with similar situations.

Vice-Mayor Dan Andre said he’s leaning toward allowing administrative variances in the event of a disaster so people could get their homes back, and the rest of Council agreed.

Council agreed to meet again with the LPA at their first workshop in May.

Next up, Council agreed to continue a discussion on the policy regarding sidewalk cafes in Time Square until staff could meet with business owners there. After Councilwoman Rexann Hosafros said she’d like to have that discussion soon - especially concerning the fees the Town charges per square foot for rental of space in Time Square - Pete’s Time Out owner John Lallo asked Council why the proposed increases are so high.

"We’re asking this Council to finally come up with a number to put this to rest, after which we go to the CPI (Consumer Price Index),” he said, and Steve Maillakakis, - owner of Plaka’s - said that the first fee was $400 in 1997, which went up 20% in 2006.

"If you divided yearly, you come with up with exactly the same amount as the CPI, which was fair,” he said. "We’re exactly where we need to be, and you’re talking about an increase of 236% according to the numbers we’ve seen.”

Hosafros countered that she’s never agreed on any number, saying that she’d just like to see the fees increased.

"We just want a set fee to go by, so we can prepare for it,” said Lallo.

Andre pointed out the negative impact that Estero Boulevard reconstruction will have on downtown businesses, saying that he agrees with Maillakakis that any increase should be based on the CPI.

Captain Ron Martin of the Fort Myers Beach Fire District reported that there is plenty of space in the Square - as it is configured now - for fire trucks to gain access if needed.

Council agreed to take the issue up again at their second workshop in April.

Town Council then agreed on the new design of the beach access signs, and asked staff to move forward with replacing them. Last year, they tasked the Community Resources Advisory Board (CRAB) to upgrade the old access signs, and the new design is based on CRAB’s suggestions.

Hosafros asked if a path and sign could be added to the south side of Newton Park, saying that would settle a long-standing dispute with some neighbors in the area, and staff agreed. The access will now be labeled as the ‘Hyde Park Access’ in accordance with historical records.

At the end of the workshop, Council took a break to wait for former Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, who was meeting elsewhere in Town Hall with members of AIR, following his arrival from Washington D.C. earlier that day to address Council and AIR on airplane noise issues.

"He is here on the Town’s request, so we are going to ask him what he’s learned and whether or not he can help us,” Mayor Cereceda said as an introduction.

Slater said he felt it was important to fly in to get a better sense of the community, and to hear about the seeming imbalance and the unfair burden borne by the residents of Fort Myers Beach.

"Aviation is what gives us access to markets around the world, and you have an international airport,” he said. "But it’s not fair to Fort Myers Beach to have to shoulder all the burden of it being here.”

Slater said that, even though he’s been out of government for over 20 years, he still has very good contacts within the Department of Transportation.

"There are people who I could talk to, but I am not the decision maker,” he said. "We would have to make a very persuasive case, and we would have some work in front of us to rethink the case that we’re making and help the decision makers understand how that can provide some redress while still recognizing the needs of others.”

In response to a question from Hosafros, Slater said he thinks the Town should look into whether or not they’ve exhausted the formal process, adding that there are a number of informal things could be done.

Andre wanted to know how long the process would take, and Slater replied that informal actions take less time than the formal process the Town has already gone through.

"I think this is something that we’ll know pretty soon whether we have any traction,” he said. "As far as how much, I’m flexible - I can involve some of our younger associates and I would step in when necessary. I don’t see cost being an issue.”

"There might be other issues beyond just an airport issue, and that might be a way to approach this,” he added. "I would be saying to the FAA or whoever we’re trying to approach that this is a city that’s very committed to this, and they just want to make sure their efforts are appropriately acted upon.”

Cereceda admitted that this has been a recurring issue since the Town’s inception, and some people on the island could care less.

"But to a broad population, it’s a huge issue,” she said. "I think that the action of the Council is that we want to come to some resolution where we either have to accept this or not, but without trying this we weren’t willing to do so. We believe that the airport authorities have done all the work they can do, we just think there must be some other way.”

Council discussed how to move forward with this. Hosafros reminded them of the motion approved at the Council meeting on October 10, 2014, where it was agreed that Town Manager Don Stilwell would negotiate terms with Slater in the amount of $25,000 or less and that she be appointed to represent Council.

"If the bill goes higher than that amount, than this will return to Council,” she said.

"I think it’s worth it,” Slater said. "We’re going to do this in a way that’s respectful of your budget and your community.”

AIR Chairman Tom Babcock, present at the meeting along with members John Pohland, Dan Hughes and Annie Babcock, asked Slater if there were any chance they ‘could get a direct line to the FAA’, and Slater replied that he thinks representatives from the Town will need to go to D.C. to meet with the Director of the FAA, and that he and his firm would arrange the meeting.

"I think this is a long shot, but I will get you an audience,” he said. "There should be a group of you that goes to D.C. to sell your community and the hardships you are suffering. I will know very soon when that will be.”

At the end of the meeting Vice-Mayor Dan Andre asked Slater if he could help with another problem facing the Town - the uproar following the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.

"As I’m sure you’re aware, Congress agreed to a 4-year delay in the implementation of that until an Affordability Study could be done,” he said. "But that applies to primary residents only, leaving a lot of people stuck with escalating premiums.”

Slater replied that he is a friend of the former FEMA director under President Clinton, and that he also has someone on his staff that might be able to help.

"I know Congresswoman Waters personally, too - we should meet with her when we go to D.C.,” he said. "She’s very level headed.”

The meeting adjourned with Mayor Cereceda inviting fellow council members and staff to join her and Slater at an informal dinner meeting at Newton Park. Mayor Cereceda, Council Members Summer Stockton and Rexann Hosafros and Town Manager Stillwell attended along with some members of Town staff and members of AIR. The press was not invited.

Keri Hendry Weeg

PHOTO CAPTION:

Rodney Slater served as the United States Secretary of Transportation under President Bill Clinton (1997-2001) and Director of the Federal Highway Administration 1993-1996 He is an attorney-partner with the DC based law firm Patton Boggs LLP where he heads the transportation practice.