Proposed homeless shelter site in Bonita Springs stirring complaints

— The proposed location for the St. Matthew’s House homeless center is once again stirring up controversy.

Bonita Springs City Council members are being bombarded with disgruntled e-mails. Residents, namely from the Spanish Wells neighborhood, are saying the new location is not appropriate and the city shouldn’t be “a dumping ground” for “troubled people.”

“The issue is not what they’re doing, it’s the location, location, location,” District 3 Councilman Steven Slachta said. “They all agree with St. Matthew’s philosophy and that they try to do good things. It’s the location. They don’t want it near, they want it to be hidden somewhere, not within their city limits period.”

Despite the contention, St. Matthew’s President Vann R. Ellison said he hasn’t received any complaints and is confident the center’s construction will continue as planned.

“There are going to be people who will not like what we do, not matter what we do,” Ellison said.

Ellison also said after they backed out of the first location -- the Old Colonial Bank building at Old 41 Road and Bonita Beach Road -- this location -- the former Causeway Lumber Yard tucked off Old 41 Road south of Bonita Beach Road -- was recommended by city leadership last spring. Currently, the purchase of the site is under contract with St. Matthew’s House for an undisclosed amount.

“Realistically when people look at the needs of the community, dealing with issues around the poor can be controversial. You think you’re going to attract more of the crowd,” Ellison said. “But, if you rationally look at it, that’s not the case. It’s easy to see how we impact that population in a positive manner and make it safer.”

However, to some residents, the potential risks of having the center at this location, across the railroad tracks from the Spanish Wells neighborhood and about 500 yards southeast from Mediterra neighborhood, are too great.

In one e-mail, Dr. Mark Liss and his wife wrote to Slachta and stated building a shelter at this location would negatively impact the surrounding doctor’s offices, oncology and radiology treatment centers, retail businesses and real estate values more than they already are suffering.

“This proposal will provide for far too large a concentration of troubled people in one relatively small geographical area,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Bonita Springs should not be a dumping ground for this population.”

Ellison said Mayor Ben Nelson suggested this location. Nelson said the proposed conflicts aren’t as apparent since there is a good buffer area between Spanish Wells and the proposed site.

According to Nelson, a lot of the opposition stems from fear of the snowball effect. By building a center for the homeless in Bonita Springs, it would draw more needy individuals to the area.

There are approximately 3,400 homeless people in Lee County, according to an annualized count in 2010. A new study of the homeless in Lee County will be conducted on Jan. 26, and the Homeless Coalition of Lee County said it could use volunteers conducting the count.

Ellison said 35 percent of his residents at the Naples St. Matthew’s House are from Bonita Springs and South Lee County.

Nelson said he believes shelters and places that serve the needy are necessary part of a city’s infrastructure, and that if you don’t have them somewhere in your community then your community suffers because of it.

“I would ask the community to wait, before you judge it,” Nelson said. “Lets see what they offer to do. Lets look at the specific request and make up our minds then.”

While Nelson hopes for patience from his community members, the ultimate reality of a center is a couple of years off.

Though the land is under contract, the sale is not expected to close until the spring.

Also, an application for a Planned Urban Development (PUD) needs to be completed and brought before the zoning board. After that meeting, regardless of approval by the zoning board, it will come before City Council as an agenda item twice – once to present it, and another meeting to vote on it.

“If constituents do not want it in my district that’s how I’m going to vote,” Slachta said. “However, the majority representative of the people wish, I have to go with what they want me to do. I think it definitely can happen, just the location that seems to be the issue.”

Currently, Ellison said, they are in the process of wrapping up the language necessary for a PUD request, which, if granted, would allow the land to have its own specific uses, regardless of the current industrial area zoning it has. Within the PUD application the center will need to include an explanation of the specific uses of the center.

On Jan. 14 at 2 p.m., Slachta plans to meet with a group in Spanish Wells that are opposing the center’s location.

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