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New Year’s revelations

December 30, 2016
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

After nearly a decade of fiscal fasting and sustenance budgeting, the city began adding a little meat to go with the potatoes in 2015 and 2016.

In addition to playing catch-up with pay raises for staff, the city brought neglected capital projects back into the budget, including road resurfacing, vehicle replacements and capital maintenance of parks and such.

Those projects will continue in 2017, along with some new ones, including the addition of 17 new positions. Among them? Three reinstated posts for police officers and nine firefighters to staff a new station to be built by the end of next year at Burnt Store Road and Northwest 11th Street.

With property values stabilized and increasing at a better-than-projected pace, and the devastating real estate bust now 10 years past, Cape Coral is well on the road to "normalcy" - and then some.

There are a number of major projects under way, with 2017 expected to be a divining rod for some of the biggest: redevelopment of the South Cape Bimini Basin area; development of the city-owned Seven Islands acreage in the northwest Cape; a new multi-year, multi-million dollar parks master plan officials hope residents will agree to tax themselves to pay for; and an agreement of some kind with the city's electric utility provider, LCEC.

Add in a municipal election that already is promising to be hot and 2017 has the potential to be a game changer.

Bimini Basin: Ripe for redevelopment?

With the exception of the Yacht Club and its surrounding riverfront, there is no cow more sacred in Cape Coral than its old downtown.

Since the establishment of the Community Redevelopment Agency in 1986, the boundaries have expanded from the original parcels along and near Cape Coral Parkway on both sides of Del Prado Boulevard down to Palm Tree and its oversight boards have changed. Its mission, however, has remained largely the same: To remove blight and foster the improvement of what has grown to be a 1,957-acre stretch that today includes the South Cape entertainment district, the old 175-acre golf course, and a new zoning district dubbed Bimini Basin.

There have been a number of plans and initiatives launched through the successive years as the CRA boundaries grew, first in 2003 to include parcels down to the Cape Coral Bridge and land around Four Freedoms Park past Palm Tree Boulevard; then in 2009 to push past Palm Tree on the other side of the parkway to include the golf club acreage while also adding waterfront near Coronado.

Few have reached fruition, with the golf course land now proposed for residential development.

Under the direction of City Council, which also acts as the authority's governing board, the CRA got a lot of renewed interest in 2016.

With the exception of some of the mature mahoganies, the Cape Coral Parkway median was scraped in September as a $188,493 re-landscaping project got under way in the South Cape. In addition to the money budgeted for new sod, plants, palm trees, shrubs and mulch, $75,000 has been earmarked for new lighting.

Meanwhile, a $8.5 million "streetscape" project was approved for Southeast 47th Terrace in hope of attracting businesses while improving "walkability" with brick pavers, wider sidewalks, better lighting and landscaping.

Negotiations for project design services began in December with staff expected to bring a contract to Council for its approval early next year.

By far the largest project, though, is for the 48-acre, multi-parcel Bimini Basin area.

Council created a new zoning district for the area along and off Cape Coral Parkway from Coronado past Palm Tree Boulevard, including and surrounding Bimini Basin at Four Freedoms Park. The city owns the park; the other parcels are in private ownership with most held by two major landowners, Mark Carrocce and Tom Cirrincione.

The city has approved the hiring of a project manager and is currently in contract negotiation with a firm to facilitate development of the area in conjunction with the property owners. Up to $150,000 has been allocated for project management and the city hopes to have a contract in hand by the end of January or the beginning of February.

Among the immediate tasks will be talks with property owners and the development of land use regulations for the new zoning district. The ultimate goal is to examine options on the table for feasibility, evaluate infrastructure needs and bring back a viable project, or projects for Council consideration.

And therein lies the rub.

The greatest challenge within the CRA has always been infrastructure, specifically existing, outdated infrastructure that is not capable of supporting the type of mixed use development the city wants for an area officials believe is ripe for destination-type development.

Add in the additional price tag associated with redevelopment - a former CRA director estimated that the cost of redevelopment construction is 50 percent higher than building from scratch - and one sees the major challenges to overcome for any Bimini Basin initiative to go forward.

That doesn't mean redevelopment isn't viable. The CRA was created as a sort of leveling agency and there are incentives, such as tax increment financing, that can be used to entice development.

Whether that, coupled with the city's investment in planning and project management, will be enough to bring an actual plan to the table is the big question for 2017. Whether the city will be asked to pony up much more through major infrastructure improvements or additional incentives will be another.

Seven Islands to 'go big'

or go home?

Even as the groundwork was being laid for the hoped-for development of Bimini Basin and a resurgence of business in the CRA, Cape Coral City Council tackled a similar initiative in the northwest Cape where the city owns 48 island acres and an adjoining 46 parcels off Old Burnt Store Road.

The city came into ownership of the seven waterfront "hammer heads" - man-made spoil islands connected to land along Burnt Store via a series of earthen "driveways" - as part of a $13 million foreclosure land buy during the bottom of the real estate bust.

The islands were originally intended for residential development but the city saw more potential there than just additional rooftops.

After a series of workshops, Council considered a variety of possible project plans ranging from the minimal to the intense. At the lower end, there was the status quo - single family with the possibility of multi-family, no commercial. At the higher, there was the potential for 11- to 12-story high- rises, a six-story hotel/resort with up to 320 rooms, a convention/meeting center and 70,000 square feet of commercial along with a number of public amenities - community center, museum, rec center, park and possibly a marina.

In November, the city landed in the center - a vision plan for up to eight story mid-rise buildings with various destination-type amenities mixed in including a marina and community center along with the multi-family residential and a resort hotel.

It was a "concept" vote with actual plans expected to come forward in 2017.

With the Council nod, City Manager John Szerlag and staff were tasked to develop a work plan that will include land use designations, any necessary comprehensive plan amendments, zoning and infrastructure requirements.

Council still must decide if the city will serve as the developer, sell the property or accept a public-private partnership proposal.

We agree there is much potential in the Seven Islands project - potential limited only by the city's ability to think outside its historic bedroom community/single-family-rooftops/strip mall box and the ability of the free market to see Cape Coral as the city it will be - the largest between Tampa and Miami with a population of 400,000-plus.

That's why we're more than a little disappointed that with all its talk about the need for "destination development," Council really didn't go "big" enough on Seven Islands, perhaps the lone development-ready property the city has the ability to shape for the greatest long-term, citywide public benefit.

It will be interesting to see what progress 2017 will bring to what should be the city's top development initiative.

Franchise or no dice?

Although the city's franchise agreement with its electric services provider was set to expire in 2016, little progress was made this year unless one considers legal filings and mounting legal bills as forward movement.

As the city's complaint alleging city ratepayers "subsidize" other ratepayers throughout the electric co-operative's service area languished before the Public Service Commission, 2016 passed much as had 2015 with zip, zero, nothing, nada in the way of either a new franchise agreement or a decision to proceed with the purchase of LCEC's facilities within the city limits, the "parallel track" of municipalization the city began to explore nearly two years ago.

We'll give the city credit for putting its PSC complaint on hold while hiring a negotiator to see if there was some common ground for a new franchise agreement - but not much.

As we said on these pages before, while the negotiator no doubt executed his mission in good faith, any such talks were doomed to fail for it is not really a franchise contract the city wants to reach, but a joint operating agreement that would require LCEC to change the way it does business.

That is never going to happen.

LCEC, a non-profit co-operative with customers across five counties, is not going to create the utility-within-a-utility the city wants. Its elected board of directors, answerable to all of its members, is not going to allow it, even if the state - which prohibits the creation of special "classes" of customers - were to give its OK.

Given the city's position and that of LCEC, the months of "negotiation" were a waste of time and a waste of money - much as the latest, look-at-us-reach-out-again facade that took place this month.

While announcing that it has taken the Council For Progress up on its offer to help facilitate a restart of "negotiations" with LCEC, and after setting up a meeting with the Co-op's CEO Dennie Hamilton, the city boosted its complaint with the state regulatory agency with an expedited demand for documents LCEC says doesn't exist and will cost between $2.2 and $3.4 million to create.

Specifically, the day before City Manager John Szerlag, Mr. Hamilton and two representatives from the Cape Coral Council for Progress sat down to discuss whether talks could begin again, Brian Armstrong, counsel for the city, filed documents asking the PSC to "order LCEC to conduct and file a cost of service study within ninety (90) days and modify LCEC's rate structure to remove any subsidies identified by such study."

LCEC continues to say it will not negotiate with litigation pending. The city continues to hinge its argument that ratepayers within the city subsidize ratepayers in less populous areas on a rate structure Florida Power & Light "had used."

Apparently in 1957.

The city said the meeting held last week "went well." LCEC said the discussion was "amicable."

We say it was likely just another waste of time, which pretty much sums up the efforts for all of 2016.

Let us recap from an editorial published in November after the negotiations hit a wall when the negotiator concluded that "...LCEC is not at this time prepared to make the kind of significant concessions to meet the city's wishes in a time frame that the City considers meaningful...":

Franchise agreements are not contracts for services nor are they "permissions" granted by municipalities or counties to allow utilities to provide services within their boundaries as utility service areas are determined by the state. Franchise agreements are a local option between a city or county and a utility that gives the utility the ability to use the entity's rights-of-way for infrastructure. In exchange, the utility remits a "franchise fee," passed on to customers. In the Cape, the city gets 3 percent on top of a 7 percent public service tax it has also levied.

What the city wants is a whole lot more, including that rates within the city reflect "the true cost of service" - which the PSC complaint maintains should be less that those charged elsewhere in LCEC's service area.

Didn't happen in 2015. Didn't happen in 2016. Isn't going to happen in 2017.

But perhaps some Council direction will.

Call that our wish for the new year.

GO or no go?

The city of Cape Coral spent much of 2016 working on a new parks master plan. Beginning in January, the city and its consulting firm, Barth and Associates, gathered public input through various workshop and "visioning" sessions to identify parks needs and priorities. In August, Cape Coral got its first analysis report, and then a draft master plan. That plan outlined findings, potential small and major projects, priorities, costs and a timeline to achieve the plan's primary goal: to "enhance the quality of life in Cape Coral by developing a system of public parks, recreational facilities and open space which meets the needs of present and future generations," in a city sorely lacking what is needed for even its existing population.

Using the standard in the city's own comprehensive plan, that means 8.5 acres of park land per 1,000 residents divvied up specifically as 4 acres of regional park land for every 1,000 residents; 2 acres per 1,000 residents for community park land; 2 acres per 1,000 for neighborhood park land and half an acre per 1,000 residents for specialty parks, such as athletic fields, environmental parks, golf courses and aquatic facilities.

With a population of 175,229 as of 2015, the city of Cape Coral owns and operates 43 parks and recreational facilities, about 829 acres, total. That breaks down to one regional park, Four Mile Cove Ecological Preserve, 365 acres; two community parks, Lake Kennedy and the Yacht Club, totaling about 59 acres with six of the city's nine indoor rec facilities; 10 neighborhood parks, totaling 59.65 acres; and the largest single component, 23 speciality parks totaling about 346 acres, or about 74 percent of the city's total park land.

Using those numbers, Cape Coral is deficient in every category except speciality parks, lacking 660 acres in total park acreage as of 2015 with a projected need of 2,570 more needed at buildout when the Cape's population will be about 400,000.

According to the Barth & Associates analysis for indoor recreation, the numbers are, perhaps, more challenging. The city has 88,302 square feet of indoor recreation space, meaning it is 174,542 square feet short of the 2015 benchmark of 264,844. The buildout benchmark is cited at 600,000 square feet.

Add in the need for additional bike and jogging paths and various parks improvements - everything from swing sets to swimming pools - and the city is looking at a multi-million dollar initiative spread over multiple years, 10 or, perhaps 20.

That will be the $60 million question for 2017 for Cape Coral City Council and residents alike.

While Council approved the plan's implementation in December, the bulk of the money needed to bring the plan to fruition - some $40 million- will need to come from city taxpayers who will be asked next year to approve $40 million in general obligation bonds. Spread over 10 years, the GO bonds would add .45 mills to property tax bills, or 45 cents for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable valuation.

Self taxation has had mixed results in the Cape.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a $110 million GO bond referendum in 2007 for a proposed 213,150-square-foot public safety building with an attached three-story parking garage. The project would have added about $5 per year to the tax bill, for an average home, over 20 years.

But voters countywide have twice approved initiatives for the purchase and preservation of conservation lands.

Voters first approved a Conservation 20/20 referendum calling for a .50 mill increase in 1996 and then approved a non-binding referendum calling for the continuation of the program this fall by nearly 84 percent of the vote.

What approval of a city GO bond for parks is going to come down to is three things: Whether the project itself is viewed as beneficial, whether the bang is worth the extra buck and whether those asked to foot the bill believe that the city has an actual need for the money or merely wants more tax dollars.

That comes down to trust in our city officials and the final thing that will bear watching in 2017.

Politics and professionalism

Thanks to a directive forced upon Lee County's municipalities years ago, Cape Coral city elections are held in "off," or odd years.

In 2017, three City Council seats plus the mayor's will be on a ballot that likely will also include the GO bond referendum.

As city elections go, it promises to be a heated one - although the existing board, individually, consists mainly of members who are among the most competent in years.

Unfortunately, collectively, there is room for improvement.

From wresting the reins of the franchise debacle back from city staff to keeping Council meetings on track and actually welcoming to residents of diverse views, this board needs to put aside politics and individual differences to start the new year off with both better focus and an eye to the projects at hand.

There is simply too much at stake in the coming year and we are not talking about a loss at the polls for those who may seek another term.

Voters may forgive an unpopular vote but they seldom overlook a loss of trust or a lack of leadership.

Let that be the Cape's guiding light for 2017.

-Breeze editorial



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