MARCO ISLAND — Marco considered prohibiting ficus trees and adding requirements for coconut and fruit tree maintenance on Monday, but decided more discussion on the issue needed to occur at a workshop.
Two of the Island's contentious issues are to take a break from the debates as City Council met Monday evening and ended their fee on electric bills, which were meant to be used for putting overhead electric lines underground. Council also chose to do away with a resort rental ordinance-- at least until March 2010. Other potentially contentious issues of the evening on the agenda included the city's involvement in a for-profit employer-assisted housing program and the acceleration of the sewer project.
Council chose to table the discussion on accelerating the sewer project, which has received mixed reviews by councilors and residents. Long-time STRP opponent Councilman Chuck Kiester said he was considering accepting the idea of speeding up the sewer construction schedule if it saved everyone money.
Others have said it was tried a few years ago and nobody liked the idea. Either way, the discussion will have to wait for another day, council decided as the meeting was edging past 10 p.m. and they elected to table the issue.
City Council had also voted not to get into a contract to oversee an employer assisted housing program.
Notes on these and other issues are below and check back to marconews.com for final stories to be online Tuesday and in-print Wednesday.
Eagle award and other awards
Reverend Bill Beebe of Wesley United Methodist Church led the invocation followed by Island architect Herb Savage leading the Pledge of Allegiance. Savage then received one of the Island's most rare awards-- the Golden Eagle Award. As is typical of an occasion led by Savage, he sang God Bless America.
See a story coming soon to marconews.com by reporter Quentin Roux describing the award and what Savage has done to shape Marco Island. Also check back to view a video of God Bless America by Savage with the whole room joining in.
More than 100 attendees of the City Council meeting began enjoying cake in Savage's honor.
Employees of the Month for July and August were honored by council including Sergio Gomez as lead meter technician and Richard Fisher, a parks maintenance worker since 2005.
Councilors are digging into harder issues as they address the results of the annual audit presented by Tommye Barie, with the audit firm CPA Associates, which has an office in Bradenton, Fla.
Barie reported that there were material weaknesses related to internal controls and numerous material misstatements.
Vice Chairman Frank Recker said it felt like history was repeating as Marco heard similar results following a forensic audit of the Collier Boulevard reconstruction project completed earlier this summer, as well as the results of the city's prior annual audit from CPA Associates.
Barie attributed the weaknesses to a lack of policy to review journal entries, a high turnover in the city's finance department and a shortage of employees in the department.
"If you have the option not to do something, you're probably not going to kill yourself doing it if you have a lot of other things to do," Barie said.
Barie recommended that the city was heading in the right direction with a new finance director, a capable controller and looking to both hire employees in the department and create new policies and procedures.
"I have a hard time understanding why someone in a controller position doesn't understand properly classifying journal entries," said Islander Michael Vale.
Barie said she believed the controller was capable but a policy should require it and she probably could use help with an additional employee.
Septic tanks converted to cisterns for rainwater storage
Council unanimously approved an ordinance to allow for converting septic tanks to cisterns. Public Works Director Rony Joel said 18 of 1,000 eligible residents have expressed an interest in using their abandoned septic tanks to store rain water for irrigation.
Tree ordinance regulating fruit trees near public property and ficus trees on all properties
Council is considering a tree ordinance which would add ficus trees to the list of noxious plants. Existing ficus trees would be grandfathered in and allowed to remain until they die. Overhanging fruits or coconuts on public property will be considered a nuisance and required to be trimmed. Such overhanging fruits or coconuts on private properties, including neighbors' private properties, will remain a civil matter, Parks and Recreation Director Bryan Milk said.
Councilman Bill Trotter said he was concerned that it was over-regulation of private property.
"Personally, I don't feel it's prohibitive.... It's not designed to be restrictive," Popoff said.
Beautification Advisory Committee Chairwoman Syd Mellinger said the BAC has worked on the ordinance since 2004.
"We care.... Tree City USA is not something to belittle. Once we get this ordinance passed we qualify for that, which opens us up to a lot of grants."
Resident Amadeo Petricca said he couldn't support not allowing ficus bushes.
"I object to this. I have ficus bushes on my property," Petricca said. He added that his ficus bushes are maintained at 7 feet high.
"I don't think they have a right to mandate that of a private owner. It's on my property I should have that right to have them as long as I don't let them grow wild," Petricca said.
Council unanimously chose to hold a workshop on the issue at a later date.
Adding Key Marco to city sewer
There are about 30 properties developed in Key Marco and the Key Marco Community Development District is hoping to add on to the city's sewer system.
"City staff is ambivalent about taking the (wastewater collection system) over," Joel said.
It would cost the city about $100,000 to upgrade lift stations and ensuring the city's ability to recover that cost became the crux of the question Monday night.
Council voted to table the issue to a date not yet set in a 4-3 vote. Recker, Councilman Wayne Waldack and Popoff cast the "no" votes on tabling.
Kiester brought the issue back for reconsideration at about 10 p.m., so in another 4-3 vote, Key Marco will be added to the city's sewer system at a cost of $100,000. Recker, Gibson and Trotter opposed adding the community to the system.
Kiester explained after the meeting that he changed his position when speaking during a break to Thompson and Joel, who explained that Key Marco's financial status put the city at risk of being forced to take over their wastewater system if the community went belly-up.
He added that if that happened, the city would then not have the same possibilities they have now, which is to build in a mechanism to help pay for the needed upgrades to the system.
Those costs are to be paid by increased utility fees for existing Key Marco homeowners and increased impact fees are to pay for expanding the system's capacity when current vacant lots are developed.
Employer Assisted Housing
Council voted against a contract with Data Research Handling for the city to oversee a statewide, for-profit employer-assisted housing program. Check back for more on this issue and view related stories for details on the proposal.
Resort rentals in residential neighborhoods
Marco has been looking at what to do about noise, trash, occupancy and parking nuisances caused by resort rentals in residential areas for years.
For the purpose of creating an ordinance to regulate rentals, the city thus far has defined short term rentals as those which are rented no more frequently than once in seven days or for lease terms as long as 6 months.
Council began addressing the question of how to regulate short term rentals Monday night by asking Police Chief Thom Carr what tools police currently have to deal with noise and partying issues of short term renters.
"I love that we have a chief of police. He's like Dirty Harry," Popoff said.
"It was the same thing in Indianapolis. If you have a loud party, you have a loud party. You just deal with it and usually people quiet down after the first warning. After that, it starts getting a little messy," Carr said.
""I wouldn't like to live next door to transient people partying or running around naked. Well, I'd reconsider that one," Recker said then laughed.
More seriously, Recker added that Marco does have some issues with the noise and other reported problems, but perhaps enforcement for a few months would be better than new regulations.
"Do you have the tools you need to do your job?" Popoff asked Carr.
"My job yes. The job you want done with the owners, no. We can and we can get ugly about it and we can write tickets the first time. That's what you're telling me. You don't want me to give these people any shot at all," Carr responded.
Council didn't set a clear direction on how tough they wanted enforcement action to be.
Carr and Chief Code Enforcement Officer Eric Wardle both said the key to success is for people to call police or code officials at the time violations are occurring. Carr said people concerned about becoming the annoying neighbor making complaints, may choose to be anonymous, but the system will only work if officials are contacted in time to catch violators.
Carr also said police are now tracking bogus complaints sometimes made against neighbors. He said some people, such as Ken Honecker and Karen Salvi, had real problems and some other people expected to hear absolutely no noise from their neighbors, ever, which was unrealistic.
Trotter said an ordinance-- conditional or permitted-- is needed for the commercial aspect of allowing a business in a residential zone. He said fire inspection needs also should be addressed. "To me it's a safety issue first that requires fire inspections," Trotter said.
It's also a notification question-- access to owners or their designee to handle a problem, he added.
"So far the city has only been able to go after two owners through code enforcement-- one is no longer a rental property, so if we make up our mind to go after a problem, we have some tools and I don't think we've fully utilized them," said Councilman Jerry Gibson.
Councilman Wayne Waldack and Recker both said they had concerns regulating rentals in a down economy. Waldack suggested strengthening current noise, parking and occupancy ordinances to address the problems rather than target rentals.
Kiester suggested the Planning Board review the conditional use version of the ordinance, which is more restrictive than the permitted version but allows the city to later choose the permitted version. However if the permitted version is passed, the right to rent cannot be revoke and the city could not change to a conditional right. Trotter agreed with having the Planning Board hold a hearing on the conditional use draft of the ordinance.
"I don't think it's fair for us to keep playing kickball back to the planning board. I think we need to say, Chief Carr, fix it." Recker said.
Dick Shanahan spoke for the Marco Island Area Association of Realtors and the Chamber of Commerce when he said the two organizations opposed a resort rental ordinance on both legal and policy grounds.
He read into the record a legal opinion by Island Attorney Craig Woodward, which stated that currently renters are allowed and the city will face liability risks if they take away potential income currently understood to be their right.
In terms of opposing the policy, the organizations state that it is not the economical time for such an ordinance.
Resident Amadeo Petricca said an ordinance was needed to address city liability issues and fire safety issues.
Frank DeGaetano said he supported rentals and understood the economy, but encouraged council to address the problems caused by resort rentals with an ordinance because poor rental regulations in residential areas will further hurt property values.
"Think long-term," DeGaetano said.
Resident Bill McMullan said there is a Web site advertising a Marco home that sleeps 25.
"They're running a youth hostel. They're running a small hotel. Do we not have the ability to regulate where a commercial enterprise is being held?" asked Councilman Ted Forcht, who said he saw ads for the same property.
"As a property owner, what I would like is a voluntary registry. I would like to know if there is any suspicious activity on my property," said Islander Randy Egan, who owns a rental.
"I hope you decide to kill this issue. I don't think we have the staff to do hundreds of inspections on rentals," Egan added.
Egan was a client who hired Woodward to share his legal opinion on the matter.
Irv Povlow of the Planning Board said there are several problems related to these rentals that need to be addressed. People who stay long-term care more about their community and taxes need to be paid by owners of these home, Povlow said.
He reported the results of a Marco Island Civic Association survey, which found about 50 percent of Islanders wouldn't want to live next to a short term rental home.
If Woodward's legal opinion is correct, Povlow suggested to grandfather current homes in and move forward with an ordinance anyway.
Honecker, who reported a nuisance rental next door to his home, said the $500 fined to the owner next door didn't seem to help much. He's seen 30 people staying in the four-bedroom home and the activity hasn't ceased.
Honecker said he was also a little confused that the Chamber of Commerce and Realtor Board, which worked with the committee on the issue a year ago to draft an ordinance, are now against it.
"I do not support creating a new property right," Honecker said. He added that it would change the Island giving off the impression that any home on the Island can be purchased for use as a daily rental.
Woodward said he thinks it's time to try tougher enforcement rather than an ordinance.
Island rental agent Karyn Roach put her wishes simply to council: "Permitted, permitted, permitted," she said.
Popoff said he would not support conditional use because he believes it takes away property rights.
City attorney Alan Gabriel said the Community Development Director Steve Olmsted's stance that short term rentals are not currently allowed puts the city in a predicament if they don't pass something.
Popoff suggested putting code enforcement under the police, but the idea didn't garner much support or discussion.
After a vote on whether to have the Planning Board review the conditional use failed in a 4-3 vote, with Gibson, Recker, Forcht and Waldack opposing the idea, Recker suggested tabling the issue.
Council unanimously approved tabling the issue until Marco 2010 with Carr being responsible to report back on enforcement of rental issues at that time.
Honecker said he couldn't yet comment on the idea. "I'm still processing what just happened," he said.
Four hours into the meeting, council voted to continue past 9:30 p.m.
Planning Board requests more involvement in capital improvement plan
After reviewing the annual level of service report, Gibson said he wanted to take note that the Planning Board read a comment into the record that they would like more involvement in the city's capital improvement planning each year. The five-year plan includes large and small projects and City Manager Steve Thompson said his take on the issue was that the Planning Board wanted involvement on large projects such as the Collier Boulevard reconstruction project and Smokehouse Bay Bridge replacement.
Electric wires to remain overhead on Marco
Trotter said he was not pleased that the pilot program to help narrow down a cost estimate of placing overhead electric lines underground would likely need to end.
"I'm very disappointed in the outcome," he said, adding that LCEC did not cooperate as much as he'd hoped in taking on some of the cost.
He said the project may come back but should likely be discontinued at least short-term.
Electric franchise fee and possible refund for canceling the underground project
Lee County Electric Cooperative is collecting the city's electric franchise fee on customers' bills. The fee was collected to pay for putting overhead electric lines underground.
It takes 90 days for LCEC to change the rate, said Tricia Dorn, key account executive for Lee County Electric Cooperative.
Popoff said he thinks a refund should be considered. The fee has been contentious at times because money for underground electric projects were spent on electricity and street lights, which was not the initial intent for charging the fee.
"A lot of people have some really hard feelings," said Fay Biles, president of the Marco Island Taxpayers' Association.
"It's easy to take and it's easy to spend, why shouldn't it be easy to give it back?" Popoff asked rhetorically.
Waldack said it would be difficult to return to customers.
Kiester said the big users like hotels would get the bulk of the money not the little users, the homeowners.
There is about $900,000 left in the fund due to canceling the electric line underground project, which many Islanders said they once wanted for aesthetics, safety and storm endurance.
Trotter and Joel both said it financially was not making sense to continue the pilot program at this time.
Petricca questioned the accounting over the years of the electric franchise fee fund.
He also suggested a refund only if applied for by LCEC customers and would become a credit on a utility bill.
"It's our own little stimulus plan. I call it cash for kilowatts. Give it back to us," Honecker said.
Council voted unanimously to end the fee. Possibilities for a refund are to be decided by council in one of the upcoming budget hearings scheduled in August or September.