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New Year’s revelations

December 29, 2017
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The city of Cape Coral swept into 2017 with a plethora of projects pending.

Among them?

Hoped-for redevelopment of property along the Bimini Basin in the South Cape; future development of the city-owned acreage known as Seven Islands in the north; possible implementation of a $60 million-plus parks master plan to be funded with voter-approved bonds; and a new franchise agreement with the city's electric services provider, LCEC.

All are still pending as the new year beckons, and all remain at the top of the queue for 2018.

Now add in at least two - possibly three - more: the construction phase of major utility expansion, a land use redux or possible city purchase of the old golf course, and a groundbreaking for an on-again, off-again project touted as a game changer for the South Cape.

The city of Cape Coral has a big year ahead and its newly voter-reconfigured City Council has its work cut out for it - and then some.

So what lies ahead for 2018?

Utility Expansion Project

The 8,800 property owners in the north Cape who were notified of the $269 million North 2 utility expansion project that will bring water, sewer and irrigation water services to their neighborhood can expect construction throughout the new year and well into 2019.

It's a massive undertaking - approximately five square miles - bounded on the west by Old Burnt Store Road; on the north by the Embers Parkway, Shadroe Canal, Hermosa Canal and Balmoral Canal; on the east by Del Prado Boulevard; and on the south by Pine Island Road. North 2 also includes additional parcels between the Bonefish Canal and Embers Parkway. Each property was billed, on average, about $20,726 or, for owners who chose to finance their city-levied assessment over 20 years, about $32,338.

Property owners and drivers can expect some inconveniences this year as roads are dug up and pipes and other infrastructure is installed.

For those affected, patience may be the buzzword for 2018.

The old golf course -

and Seven Islands?

Faced with concerted protests from Save Our Recreation, a grassroots group started by nearby property owners, Cape Coral City Council deadlocked in August, effectively killing a land use change request by the owners of the old golf course acreage off Palm Tree Boulevard in the South Cape.

Had Council agreed to transmit the comprehensive plan amendment to the state for its consideration, Florida Gulf Ventures would have been able to sell the 175-acre site to D.R. Horton, which planned to build homes while preserving green space and donating a 12-acre park to the city.

The new year brings a new Council with four recently elected members replacing four incumbents - two on each side of the deadlock. What that means, though, remains to be seen - and quickly, too.

Florida Gulf Ventures, still looking to sell, has indicated it will resubmit a comp plan amendment in January with a Planned Development Project submission to allow for up to 500 single-family homes to follow.

As an alternative, Executive Vice President Bill McHale has indicated a willingness for Ryan Companies to sell the site to the city if Council agrees to that option. The price would be $12 million and would include environmental remediation at the sellers cost.

As tendered, staff has also included a proposed $13,525,000 improvement plan for the site. Suggested for Council consideration are plans for a $6 million community center; $.5 million in garden areas to include an arboretum; a $775,000 amphitheater; a $900,000 corporate pavilion and restrooms; $300,000 for pickleboard courts; a $4.5 million, 3-mile linear park; and a $200,000 parking lot.

According to a memo issued by City Manager John Szerlag on Thursday, the matter and its various options are recommended for discussion at Cape Coral City Council's first regular meeting of the new year on Jan. 29.

Mr. Szerlag identifies four possible payment methods including a 10-year bank loan to be paid back with General Fund tax dollars.

The three other funding options on the table are:

* Potential proceeds from the sale, lease or establishment of a public-private partnership for the development of the Seven Islands acreage, which consists of 48 waterfront acres and an adjoining 46 parcels off Old Burnt Store Road in the north Cape.

* Other General Funds freed up by a reshuffling of capital needs

* Possible grants, including another request to Lee County for 20/20 Conservation Funds.

Staff is asking for a Council vote on purchase next month.

If yes, staff will enter into purchase negotiations.

If no, Ryan/Florida Gulf Ventures will proceed with its comp plan amendment and PDP application.

It's a mind-blowing proposal that has the potential to be win-win for both the city and the property owner.

The funding options, though, will open 2018 with a challenge for Council, particularly any encumbrance of the Seven Islands, which the city says has an appraised value of $25.3 million for mixed use development.

This time last year, the development of the Seven Islands site to city-specified goals and objectives was easily the project of the year.

Touted as Cape Coral's best-chance opportunity for "destination" type development, the city spent months holding workshops before tasking Mr. Szerlag and staff with the formation of a work plan to include land use designations, any necessary comprehensive plan amendments, zoning and infrastructure requirements to accomplish Council's approved development goal. That "vision plan" called 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.

Plans were to come forward by the end of 2017.

At that point, Council was then to decide if the city would serve as the developer, sell the property or accept a public-private partnership proposal, the latter touted as the most likely route as it would give the city the greatest control over any project to assure not only the best public benefit but the greatest bang for the buck.

This time last year we agreed the Seven Islands project held great potential - potential that was limited only by how well the city could dream outside its historic bedroom community/single-family-rooftops/strip mall box and how well the free market could see Cape Coral as the city it will be, the largest between Tampa and Miami with a population of 400,000-plus.

If anything, we thought the city didn't go "big" enough and feared that it was limiting what the market might bear.

With this new proposal on the table, we ask - Where are the plans, the options, the requests for proposal for Seven Islands? As of Thursday, we are told there is nothing in writing, no requests for proposal, nothing that has been shared with Council members, nothing that is public record.

If the time window was too short, well, OK.

What would not be OK would be to contemplate encumbering Seven Islands without those things not only in hand, but aggressively solicited in a competitive marketplace and then carefully vetted for viability.

A couple of things.

We agree "something has to be done" regarding the old golf course acreage.

We agree that there are only two options on the table at this point: city purchase of the land or approval of a comp plan amendment and subsequent PDP to allow residential development as abuts the property.

We agree purchase could be a win-win for the city although we have three caveats: The numbers must work, the funding plan must make good fiscal sense and, key, that the city also commit to a development plan for site.

Otherwise, what the taxpayers of Cape Coral are likely to cull from purchase of the old course are more pie-in-the-sky initiatives like the Academic Village and Festival Park, great ideas just waiting - and waiting - on interested partners and lots of more money.

Katherine Paterson said it well: "A dream without a plan is just a wish."

And our wish for 2018 is that our new Cape Coral City Council emphasize the latter a whole lot more than the former when "vision plans" come to the table.

Council can start with the golf course and, yes, at some point next year, Seven Islands. They may find that 2018's decisions will get easier with a solid vetting process and plans template in place.

Bimini Basin,

the South Cape

and Village Square

The South Cape got a major infrastructure boost in 2017 with the approval of a $13 million streetscape plan for Southeast 47th Terrace.

Cape Coral City Council, also sitting as the board of the South Cape Community Redevelopment Agency, approved the plan that will enhance the street's "walkability" while also providing beautification. The plans call for wider sidewalks, the elimination of on-street parking and the addition of a roundabout as well as replacement of below-street infrastructure, including antiquated water and sewer.

This comes in the wake of a large-scale re-landscaping and lighting project along Cape Coral Parkway that topped $265,000.

By far the largest project set in 2017, though, was for the 48-acre, multi-parcel Bimini Basin area.

Last year 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 hired a project manager in 2017 and the results of that effort are expected early in 2018 with a goal very similar to that set for Seven Islands - a destination type, in this case, redevelopment plan that would make maximum use of the water and, perhaps, nearby canals.

As highly as the project was touted in 2017, Bimini may find itself overshadowed by a private project a developer says will not only be back on the table in 2018, but will actually break ground in the spring.

Village Square, a $150 million project that has been perking in the South Cape since 2009 and was approved in 2010, will break ground by April, developer Robbie Lee said Thursday.

The "transformational project" has received multiple extensions of its planned develop project, or PDP, including an automatic extension in the wake of Hurricane Irma, according to city officials.

Mr. Lee said they are in the process pulling demolition permits and submitting plans.

While site-specific plans were still pending as of Thursday, according to information provided when Council approved an extension of the PDP in 2014, Village Square is to consist of 251,000 square feet of non-residential space spread over five structures plus 152 dwelling units.

As discussed in 2014, the entire complex is to take up four city blocks with frontage on Cape Coral Parkway and Southeast 47th Terrace.

Plans called for three six-story buildings, a seven-story building and a six-story, 938-space parking garage for retail, offices and public use, a public square and two optional residential towers.

If 2018 proves to be the year Village Square does break ground, the development will be "transformational," indeed.

It might also provide the last dot for those looking to connect the various South Cape project components into a comprehensive development picture for the Cape's old downtown.

We wait with bated breath.

Sincerely.

A project of this magnitude would, indeed, be a game changer for not only the historic district but a huge economic boost for Cape Coral as a whole.

Snake eyes

This year, the question regarding an agreement between the city and its electric services provider, LCEC was whether it would be a new franchise or no dice.

The answer for 2017 was, unfortunately snake eyes.

Despite the best efforts of the Council For Progress, a Cape Coral business group, there is still no meeting of the minds between the city and the co-op.

There not only is still no franchise agreement two years after the old 30-year pact expired, but the two sides are again at impasse.

Why is this important when the lights still come on when we hit the switch, when, for all intents and purposes, it's status quo when it comes to service?

Money.

Lots and lots of money as Cape Coral ratepayers continue to pay twice for staff time, consultants, negotiators, attorneys and all the other burgeoning costs for both sides as the city continues its attempt to "get the best deal" and LCEC stands firm in its position that it will not yield to any provisions that would require LCEC to change the way it does business.

Let us repeat ourselves ad nauseum: That is never going to happen.

LCEC, a non-profit co-operative with customers across five counties, was never going to create the utility-within-a-utility the city wanted. Its elected board of directors, answerable to all of its members, was not going to allow it, much as the city would refuse any signing away of its own home rule powers.

The LCEC board, in fact, has just rejected the agreement agreed to by the city and Council For Progress facilitators and brought directly to that elected panel.

We summed up the efforts of 2015 as pretty much a waste of time.

Ditto those of 2016

And those of 2017.

Sigh.

It probably doesn't help that the lead "negotiator" on behalf of the city, City Manager John Szerlag, asks in a regional daily newspaper guest column "Would Cape Coral customers be better served with FPL as our electric utility?" and then opines, "The answer is yes," citing better service and lower rates but not addressing that in all likelihood the mega-provider would have told the city to take its proposed franchise terms/joint operating agreement and put it where the solar don't shine two years ago.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

It's time - no, it's long past time - for City Council to pull the plug on this debacle.

Make that a must-do for 2018.

Parks master plan

The city of Cape Coral spent much of 2016 working on a new parks master plan. That August, Cape Coral got its first analysis report, followed by a draft master plan. That plans outlines the need for an estimated $60 million in park land and infrastructure as well as a funding option: a General Obligation Bond, which would require the approval of Cape voters.

Despite the findings of critical need the year before, 2017 passed without the planned "education campaign" to sell the idea to those asked to pay and so the funding component never made it to the ballot.

Whether the issue comes to the voters in 2018 remains to be seen: The city says the Supervisor of Elections Office doesn't want to put the referendum on what likely will be a crowded even-year primary or general Election ballot. Supervisor of Elections Tommy Doyle says he does have some concerns about ballot length but is willing to consider a request - if one is made. As of Wednesday, he said he had not been directly approached.

To recap the issue as outlined on these pages last year and excluding impact of the possible purchase and development of the old golf course acreage:

The parks 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 $60 million dollar initiative spread over multiple years, 10 or, perhaps 20. As initially proposed the bulk of the money - estimated at $40 million - would come from city taxpayers at a rate of .45 mills, or 45 cents for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable valuation.

As we pointed out last year, 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.

What approval of a city GO bond for parks would 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 more to faith in our elected board than what can be sold with event the most slick "education campaign."

We urge Council to make discussion of the parks master plan a priority for early 2018.

If it's deemed as too costly, too ambitious or just plainly a no-starter, that should be a conscious decision, not another bought-and-paid for proposal quietly shelved as the city moves on to the next shiny new thing.

And if it's determined the voters should decide?

Reach out to Mr. Doyle directly. He's getting ready to meet with his legal team and staff to discuss how to handle what likely will be a heavy ballot that not only includes numerous county and state races but proposed constitutional revisions and petition-generated amendments.

Just make a decision. It's hard to tell the voters you have a need when the "crisis" has gone unaddressed for a year and a half.

Ethics

Citing many of these same large-scale projects on the horizon, the Breeze in July of 2016 called for the city of Cape Coral to grab Lee County's playbook and foster transparency throughout the concept-to-construction process by passing a strong disclosure ordinance.

At least one council member agreed enough to begin drafting an ordinance which, we are told, has been inching its way through the process on the staff side.

Councilmember Richard Leon, however, is no longer in office and the ordinance - which we believe still makes for both good policy and good sense - needs a new sponsor. And one that will push hard.

Not because we have any reason to distrust the new Council or any of its members. Not because of problems past members may have had with disclosure or lack thereof. Not because of any distrust of city staff (which interestingly enough has proposed to be exempt from the provisions of such an ordinance, according to discussions Mr. Leon had as he tried unsuccessfully to bring the proposal forward.)

But because it's the right thing to do.

To recap both our position on the need and the recommendations we urge:

Since the late '90s, Lee County has enhanced state ethics and disclosure laws by enacting some form of "lobbying ordinance" to assure a level playing field for projects coming before the Lee County Board of County Commissioners.

As we stated then, Lee County's most recent ordinance, in effect since July 1, 2003, requires a number of disclosures that also make sense for the Cape, which is on the same development cusp as was the county then.

That county ordinance requires a number of things:

Lobbyists, in general, are defined as "any person, firm, entity 'paid or unpaid'" who seeks to "encourage the passage, defeat or modification" of any item to be presented to a vote before the commission, a county decision-making body or a county employee who can make a recommendation. Paid lobbyists must register and file quarterly disclosure forms.

The ordinance applies to all communications, written or oral, to a commission member, board member or county employee including those in the county manager's office, the county attorney's office, all department directors and all employees within the purchasing division and contracts office.

The ordinance requires uniform logs detailing the date; whether the contact was by phone or visit; the name of the person making the contact and whether he or she was representing another person or entity and the topic discussed. There also is room for comments. The logs are filed quarterly to the Clerk of Courts with an office copy retained.

The ordinance provides enough exceptions to allow the county to conduct its day-to-day operations but not for a whole lot else.

The ordinance also has some teeth: The penalty, for a willful violation, is a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.

We thought the ordinance made sense - it's simple and straightforward - but called also for some minor modifications and areas of special emphasis.

- There should be an explicit no-exception for union representatives speaking in that capacity to individual council members or others who are required to log.

- Each quarter, certain public officials, including members of city council, must report any gifts valued at $100 or more with the state. (Gifts of any value by lobbyists or vendors are wholly prohibited.) For ease of access to residents, council policy should require that these Commission on Ethics gift forms be posted on the city website. The city already posts required annual financial disclosure forms so the procedure is already in place.

- A pre-vote disclosure process, via a written form or by on-the-record verbal notice, should be included. If a member of council or staff has been "lobbied" as per the definition in the ordinance, that should be disclosed from the dais.

- Income/business disclosure. In theory, city officials already disclose sources of income and business partnerships on their state financial disclosure forms. If a proposal that benefits a business or individual comes before council for a vote, council members should be required to disclose any business, financial or personal relationship. This would not preclude a vote unless it meets the state recusal standard of direct benefit.

- The use of any city computer, cell phone or device for personal communications should be expressly prohibited. The use of a personal device to discuss city matters should be prohibited. Current policies have created a public records nightmare for city staff - and the public as "personal" communications apparently take hours to cull from city devices.

Cape officials continue to say our community is poised on the precipice of realized potential.

It is up to City Council - this City Council if not the last - to assure that the leap upwards is safeguarded with transparency.

The county bridged the way with a strong lobbying ordinance intended to provide both public assurance and protection years ago.

What better way for the city of Cape Coral to open its new year of business than to now do the same?

May 2018 be as successful as its promise.

We wish you all a very happy - and prosperous - New Year.

- Breeze editorial

 
 
 

 

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