Guest column: The Eye of the Storm

By Ben Nelson

Mayor, Bonita Springs

The decision of St. Matthew's House to abandon their plans to purchase property next to the Art League on Old 41 marks at least five times in the last eight years that they or similar organizations have proposed creating homeless shelter facilities within our city.

These have been very public, very controversial, very emotional experiences for everyone involved.

While there was some constructive community conversation, there was also fear, suspicion, mistrust and anger; pitting neighbor against neighbor, creating tension between pastors and parishioners and supplying fodder for those who already have a mistrust of their local government officials.

Although the fear, the trepidation, the disagreements and even anger were understandable and arguably justifiable, the misinformation, accusations, mistrust and conspiracy theories were not. Even though people on both sides of this issue will continue to disagree and we still have a development order application for that use pending, one thing is certain — we must never again allow our community to go through another heart-wrenching, unproductive, disruptive process regarding this subject.

This last experience may have finally produced the right motivation, circumstances and tools that will allow our community and our City Council to discuss what our community standards for this use will be, and to draft the appropriate legislation and standards necessary to avoid future communal trauma, fear and uncertainty.

But, before I share my thoughts on just how we can go forward, I feel it necessary to explain a few things.

I know that it has been frustrating for some, but as the mayor of Bonita Springs I feel very strongly that one of my obligations is to be sure that everyone's right to voice their opinion, whether at the podium at a meeting or in an email, is respected and that everyone is treated fairly. Regardless of the individual or the type of request, our system needs to be fair, legal and without prejudice. The mechanism of government must operate in a professional and ethical manner for the benefit and protection of our citizen's safety, health and welfare.

As long as there is an applicant, multiple affected parties, or a potential litigant directly involved, regardless of my or staff's personal feelings on a subject, the process and all involved deserve to be afforded the same courtesy and the same rights.

Yes, some may want me, as mayor, to politically "thump my chest" and mimic the emotions and feelings that the public had every right to express, but I think it's clear that others are adequately expressing those sentiments.

While the owner of the property is still pursing this development order, we are not dealing with any particular social service agency. So I think it's important that I make it clear to you that regardless of the gossip and rumors you may have heard, or the email accusations or blogs you may have read, I am not in favor of any large warehouse-type shelters in Bonita Springs nor have I ever attempted to attract any social service agency to Bonita Springs.

What I have done is to advocate approaching any subject logically, rationally, compassionately and thoughtfully.

As I told many of you in my email responses, "It is not time to panic … it is time to be smart."

To that end, because the outcome of this situation remains uncertain, I want to continue to approach possible solutions along several different avenues. This will allow us to position the city as favorably as possible, regardless of the ultimate decision.

First, because the city government had little or no way to regulate the use, I have proposed that the City Council draft land development restrictions and operational regulations for homeless shelters. Yes, this should have been done long ago and in fact I did propose developing regulations for this use several times over the last couple of years. But because of the public's fear of the subject, and the anger and mistrust leveled at anyone wanting to discuss it, it was feared that a proposal to regulate the use would be seen as a facilitation of the use — not as protection for our citizens.

This was made abundantly clear to council, and consequently the majority of the public and council in the past was content to simply not have the subject discussed. However, in the last few months, when faced with what seemed at times to be the inevitable creation of a shelter, the council and most of the public have finally embraced the need for regulations.

It is extremely important to note that it was council's intent to create these regulations that legally allowed us to impose a moratorium on the use in the first place.

Then, because of the complexity and uncertainty of the issue and the avalanche of legal suggestions, threats, questions and advice, I and others encouraged our legal staff to avail themselves of every resource to be sure that the city is well positioned legally regardless of what council and staff decide to do or not to do.

And finally, in case St. Matthew's House, or as it seems now the property owner, prevails, someone has to be in a position to negotiate possible voluntary concessions. Regardless of how emotionally charged the issue becomes, it is important for me to maintain a respectful relationship with the applicant, instead of entering into a war of words.

So what now? Your City Council and city staff are continuing to explore this complicated issue. This is being done in a professional and thorough manner and I am confident that by patiently working this challenge together that a fair and adequate resolution will be reached.

But what then? Do we continue as in the past and simply turn the page after another unpleasant episode is over? Not this time.

Regardless of the outcome in this case, we must spend the next year adopting well thought-out, reasonable and legally enforceable regulations for homeless shelters or similar facilities, that fit the true needs, desires and standards of our community, and in the process we can come back together — as friends, neighbors and fellow citizens in this place we call paradise.

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