Brent Batten: Beach group won't concede on concessions

BRENT BATTEN

Sort of like the tide and the sea turtles, the issue of improved restrooms and concessions keeps coming back to Vanderbilt Beach.

On Tuesday, Collier County commissioners will consider spending close to $30,000 to explore options for improving the building housing existing restrooms at the western end of Vanderbilt Beach Road.

It is a seemingly innocuous item but if history is any indication, it will not play out that way.

In March, another non-descript procedural vote on the project turned into an hours-long discussion that resulted in a major scaling back of what had been approved a year before as a $1.2 million renovation including a concession area and observation deck.

At the beginning of the March 8 discussion, Commission Chairman Fred Coyle outlined the question before commissioners. Either the 3,600-square-foot structure would be built at ground level, or it would be built several feet higher to conform to Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines for coastal construction. Failing to follow the guidelines could cost the county its favorable insurance rating from FEMA and lead to higher premiums for residents countywide.

“It is only about one thing. Do you build it at FEMA level or do you build it at ground level? End of story. This is not a rehearing of the entire project,” Coyle said, framing the debate.

But the 57 people registered to speak on the issue paid him little heed. Dozens of speakers opposed the project. None supported it. An area convenience store owner said the concession stand would put him out of business. Some residents decried the cost and size of the building, saying it would spoil the natural state of Vanderbilt Beach. Others said the elaborate ramp system need to provide handicapped access to the elevated restroom would prove difficult for the elderly and disabled to navigate. Still others cited the environmental impact on beach and dune system.

After more than two hours, they convinced commissioners to scale back the plans and do away with the concession stand.

It was as if no one wanted the new building.

And that’s the problem, says Mary Lou Smart, organizer of a group supporting the new facility, Keep Our Beaches Open.

Smart says she went out of her way to keep up with developments with the project and was blindsided by the commission’s decision to drastically alter the plan when all that was on the March 8 agenda was a discussion about elevation.

“The only reason the that the approval of the facility as planned was denied was the direct result of KOBO not being given notice of the meeting, which eliminated any opportunity to provide a competing view supporting the facility,” Smart wrote in a letter to the county attorney.

She maintains the board action to revise the plan without advance notice amounts to a violation of the state’s open government laws, going so far as to contact the Florida Attorney General’s office with her complaint.

While the opponents of the larger structure mostly live or have businesses near it, KOBO is made up of people from a wider area, people who don’t necessarily live at the beach but visit there and would appreciate easier access to food and drinks.

Smart and KOBO aren’t the only ones opposed to the board’s March 8 decision to scale back the facility.

Three advisory committees that had vetted and approved the larger facility have weighed in since the March 8 meeting.

The Coastal Advisory Committee voted 9-0 not to spend the $30,000 to look at new alternatives for restroom design. “The committee’s position is that the original design is consistent with county policy and existing facilities. The committee also indicated that this project has been fully vetted and approved by the (county commission) and meets FEMA standards for this location,” wrote Gary McAlpin, director of coastal zone management for the county.

The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board voted 5-1 against investigating alternatives, “indicating that sufficient due diligence had already been performed,” McAlpin wrote, and the Tourist Development Council voted unanimously not to move forward with the options outlined at the March 8 meeting.

Smart believes Commissioner Georgia Hiller rallied support against the larger restrooms and concession stand, pointing out that Hiller received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from businesses and residents near the Vanderbilt Beach park. Hiller flatly denies tipping off anyone to the opportunity to lobby her fellow commissioners to reverse the plans for a bigger facility.

Hiller turns the allegation around, saying county staff members who support the larger project have been encouraging people to attend Tuesday’s meeting to voice opposition to the March 8 decision.

“This is the second time I have found that staff is lobbying the public to support a particular position ahead of a commission meeting. I have discussed this with (County Manager Leo Ochs) and Leo agrees that this is not acceptable,” Hiller said.

Peter Tierney, manager of the Turtle Club Restaurant at Vanderbilt Beach said a neighboring property owner, not Hiller, alerted him to the March 8 commission item. He said he’s not concerned that a concession stand would hurt his upscale restaurant business, but that the area in general is too crowded. “Before you build something to attract more people, you have to deal with the parking,” he said.

Rick Medwedeff, manager of the Marco Marriott, and another opponent of the larger building, said he knew of the March 8 discussion because he sits on the TDC. The Collier Lodging Association also brought it to the attention of hoteliers, he said. Medwedeff and others in the hospitality industry believe the money would be better spent on advertising. “It’s just a ridiculous use of tourist tax dollars,” he said, “We have to scrutinize every penny we spend.”

Smart isn’t giving up. Since the March 8 meeting she’s been handing out pamphlets to beachgoers, asking them to support the larger facility come Tuesday.

“I’ve been handing out flyers on the beach for some time and people are upset, so yes, we probably will have support at that meeting,” she said.

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

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