Naples Park, consider yourself notified.
A study is under way that could lead to improved sidewalks and better “walkability” in the neighborhood.
The innocuous-sounding study is raising fears, however, of a repeat of the disastrous 2003 Naples Park Community Plan, an episode that led to no improvements and bitter feelings that linger to this day.
Also known as the Dover-Kohl Plan after the consulting firm that worked on it, the 2003 plan discussed ways to enhance Naples Park. Ideas included more sidewalks, better landscaping, on-street parking and even a new street to be built between Eighth Street and U.S. 41.
The Dover-Kohl Plan was accompanied by a media blitz to get the word out, a weeklong open meeting allowing residents to express their ideas and a door-to-door campaign to pass out fliers explaining the process.
But the ambitious plan that came out of the meetings also drew criticism. Many who hadn’t participated in the early stages later claimed to have been left in the dark. They balked at the fundamental change the plan would have meant for the neighborhood and the price that Naples Park residents would have had to pay through their property taxes.
It eventually disintegrated amid squabbling, accusations and counter accusations.
Now, 10 years later, comes the Naples Park Walkable Community Study. The Collier County MPO, made up of county commissioners and City Council members from Naples, Marco Island and Everglades City, heard an update on the plan last week.
The main similarity between the 2013 and the 2003 plans is that both consider the possibility of more sidewalks. The 2013 study won’t even broach subjects such as elaborate landscaping, better drainage, a new street or revamped zoning, all features of the Dover-Kohl plan. It doesn’t obligate anyone to build anything and funding for any new sidewalks would come from grants, not from residents’ property taxes.
But the mere mention of sidewalks is enough to rekindle the bad memories for some.
At a public meeting held April 3 and through emails and letters, Naples Park residents have been commenting to the MPO staff about the walkability study. Summarizing the sentiments so far, MPO staff member Sarah Layman on Friday told the MPO board, “People do not want sidewalks on the avenues.”
Naples Park resident Chris Carpenter is spearheading the effort to make sure there’s no repeat of 2003.
“It was a very divisive issue. It was horrible,” Carpenter said, recalling an instance when a proponent of the 2003 plan made an obscene gesture to opponents at a public meeting.
“What upset people the most was the lack of communication. People felt like it was done behind their backs. I’m seeing some signs of a lack of communication this time around,” she said.
Carpenter asked the MPO to send out a survey to all Naples Park property owners asking their opinions on sidewalks. A 2003 survey on the issue showed about 68 percent opposed them, she said. If there isn’t enough money to do a survey this time, the entire walkability study should be dropped, she said.
MPO board members all agree that public input needs to be a part of the 2013 study.
But Commissioner Fred Coyle argued that without a survey of every property owner done early on, any other attempts at engagement will fail.
“My inclination about this, knowing what happened last time, is to say don’t go through this process until you actually poll the people in the neighborhood,” he said. “People will not go on the Internet and seek out information. You can mail them a letter notifying them of a meeting, they will not attend. You can do everything you want to try to get people involved and they will not get involved until you bring it to the board for final approval and then they’ll say, ‘Nobody told me.’ That’s just the way it is.”
Coyle said he doesn’t believe sidewalks will be any more popular now than they were 10 years ago: “Send out ballots to each property owner and ask them if they want sidewalks, if they want lighting. The answer is going to be, “No, I don’t.”
A dilemma arises when the neighborhood doesn’t want sidewalks but safety, in the area around a school for instance, demands them.
“I don’t know that somebody should be able to say, ‘There can’t be sidewalks on the streets because I don’t want them,’ when you’re talking about schoolchildren,” Naples City Councilwoman Dee Sulick said.
The MPO board took no action on the report, allowing the walkability study to proceed without an immediate survey of Naples Park residents.
The question now is will, after whatever public outreach follows, those residents complain that no one told them about it?
__ Connect with Brent Batten at email@example.com