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It is not a question of whether there is a need for assisted living facilities on Marco Island.

All members of the Marco Island Planning Board were in agreement about that during Friday's meeting, but with questions about whether the projects were commercial or residential and consistent with the comprehensive plan, the board chose to hold off making a decision on two applications for amendments to the land development code that would have pushed the projects along.

The type of designation is significant because it determines the density limitations for developers and can stop development if amendments are not made.

"Currently under the land development code, if this is a residential facility, it's not feasible economically to build a group home," Chairperson Erik Brechnitz said. "It's probably not feasible even if we decide this is commercial without significant changes."

Walt Chancey, owner and developer of The Watermark of Marco Island project, said he wants to build a facility with assisted living, independent living and memory care capabilities at the corner of Heathwood Drive and San Marco Road.

While the NCH Marco Healthcare Center currently controls 12 acres, it is selling the westernmost five acres and using those funds to build a state-of-the-art 12,000 square-foot urgent care facility.

Chancey said his project is currently proposing 203 units, which includes 82 units of independent living, 96 units of assisted living and 25 units of memory care.

"It is not a condominium," Chancey said. "It is a senior residence."

Prior to the vote of continuing the discussion to next month's meeting, Craig Woodward, an attorney representing The Watermark, said Friday's meeting to seek a text amendment to the group housing standards was just the first step in the process.

Woodward said his client would also seek to rezone the property to a commercial planned unit development (PUD) that would encompass both the assisted living facility but also the urgent care facility.

The final step would be to seek approval of a site development plan, Woodward said.

Under the current C-1 zoning, assisted living facilities are not permitted on the property. Commercial use density is also limited to 12 units per acre. If an assisted living facility was permitted on the NCH property, current zoning would allow for 144 units.

The other project, which is not related to The Watermark, is for 81 units of assisted living and memory care on South Barfield at the old Sonitasole property.

Bob Mulhere, vice president of Hole Montes, Inc., said his client owns three contiguous parcels spanning 1.4 acres that are zoned C-3, including the Sonitasole property, which sits in the middle.

"We're going to design the project to utilize that facility," Mulhere said. "That would be a common area there in the middle."

From all of the public comments made during the meeting, it would appear Marco Island is also in favor of more assisted living facilities.

Mary Lee Kocourek, the widow of former NFL tight end Dave Kocourek, spoke about how difficult it was for families to have to leave Marco Island to visit other facilities.

"I don't know what I would have done if Sanitasole was not here," Kocourek said. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me and my husband [...] I can't tell you how much it helped me, and we need this on the island."

While members of the planning board were in agreement about that sentiment, there were some that objected to the plans they saw before them.

"On the second proposal we had, that's 1.4 acres and they're talking about 81 apartments of which half of them are going to be occupied with memory care patients," Ed Issler said. "I think that's a ridiculous number, personally, on 1.4 acres when you are talking about a comprehensive plan density of basically a total of 16 units permitted on that 1.4 acres."

Board member Joseph Rola also warned of the impact of to the comprehensive plan if the planning board approved amendments to the land development code.

"We're talking about every commercial lot, every commercial acre on the island can start to drag this sort of thing up if we make these changes," Rola said. 

City staff has also issued a recommendation to deny the applications.

Dan Smith, director of community affairs, said it was his interpretation that the facilities were residential and would require a different application. If the projects are determined to be residential use, an equivalency factor would have to be established.

With the planning board not prepared to make a decision, attorney Paul Gougelman suggested that staff meet with the applicants about finding the right track for their projects and explaining the hurdles they might face. 

Following the board's meeting, Issler emailed fellow Planning Board members and the City Council his thoughts about the projects.

With a subject line, "The Sharks are Circling," Issler wrote that Marco Island was "under attack by those wanting to drain the last bit of money out of what our Island has to offer." 

"All the reasons and excuses they tried to use to justify the LDC changes they could have used in PUD applications," Issler wrote. "But, as our colleague and friend, Joe Rola, so aptly pointed out during the meeting, if we were to pass any changes to the LDC on this subject, it could apply to other parcels and as Eric pointed out, could even apply to other uses."

Issler called an assisted living facility a necessity for Marco Island and expressed a willingness to permit the use of the NCH property but not through amending the land development code.

"We, as the Planning Board need to be strong and represent all the citizens of Marco Island," Issler wrote. "We cannot let Developers come in and just build out properties as they wish for the benefit of their financial backers. I guarantee that if we allow 12 units per acre for the NCH property, it will be built."

Although there was some push-back from members of the planning board, Chancey said those were the only negative comments they've heard thus far though there is a timeline they must meet for the project to move forward.

"We feel confident we're going to get it," Chancey said. "We just have to go through the proper route to get it done. If it can't be done by January, the contract goes away."

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