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After nearly four and half hours of presentations, public comment and deliberations, the general feeling among Marco Island city councilors was that they were receptive to the idea of having some type of assisted living facility in the city -- just not the one proposed at the corner of San Marco Road and Heathwood Drive.

Marco Island City Council rejected the rezoning of nearly 12-acres Tuesday from a C-1, commercial, to a planned unit development by a 6-1 vote. Approval would have facilitated the construction of a three-story, 143 unit facility on five of those acres.

NCH, the current owner of the parcel, intended to sell off the acreage and guaranteed the Marco Island Civic Association that it would use the proceeds to build a new 12,000-square-foot urgent care facility on the other tracts.

The City Council and city staff, however, were left in the dark regarding the specifics of NCH's plans, including what such a building would look like and when it would be completed, leading them to refer to parts of the project as speculative.

"I can support a 72-unit ALF but when you add in 71 units of independent living, you have a facility that in my opinion right now as designed is too big," Councilor Howard Reed said. "[...] 143 units on a 12-acre parcel would be great, and I would totally support it. But what we're talking about here, let's make no mistake, is 143 units of an assisted living, half in assisted memory and (the other) half in independent living, on five acres of land. The other seven acres are going to be completely built out with the NCH facilities."

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Developers of the proposed facility, dubbed the Watermark at Marco Island, had made major changes since it first revealed its plans to the Marco Island Planning Board last year.

What was originally a four-story, 266-bed facility was cut down several times after concerns grew over the facility encroaching into a residential area and overall size of the facility not conforming with the comprehensive plan.

Originally, the developers of the project had looked for the city to allow them to apply an equivalency ratio to the project, arguing that assisted living units are not as intensive as regular residential, but they ultimately chose to reduce the number of units over the last few days.

"We have decided over the last few days here that we needed to listen again to what the residents were saying, what staff has said and what Council has talked about," Walt Chancey, architect and development partner of the project, said.

Chancey and members of the development team argued that the project represented a benefit to Marco Island residents.

Teri Sommerfeld, whom several residents ceded their public comment time to, said she was not against a reasonably-sized assisted living facility but opposed the project because it would be one of the largest facilities in the state if built.

If the facility had been built as originally planned, Sommerfeld said it would have been in the top one percent for capacity. With the unit reduction, Sommerfeld said it was still in the top three percent.

Sommerfeld noted that the current property did not have any density so by approving the rezoning, the City Council would have been increasing density which contradicts the comprehensive plan and some of the principles members of the council vowed to protect when running for office.

Sommerfeld also accused Planning Board member Dick Adams of not recusing himself during previous proceedings due to his involvement with the petitioner's Board of Trustees.

Adams, however, made a full disclosure during previous proceedings.

Although the study itself was criticized by residents opposing the project and various members of the City Council, it was the belief of some that there was anecdotal evidence to support the belief that an assisted living facility would benefit Marco Island residents.

Marie Johnson told council a short story about people she knew who had the leave Marco Island and referred to those that have left as the "silent majority" because everyone that has left was not present or ever going have their voices heard.  

"If I know seven people, how many more know seven people and those know seven people," Johnson said. "This is a very big real number."

After receiving hundreds of emails and watching as speaker after speaker came forward, Councilor Victor Rios suggested the decision go to a referendum. However, state law prohibits a referendum being held for a zoning issue.

While Councilor Charlette Roman spoke about some of the people she's met and become friends with that don't want to leave Marco Island to find an assisted living facility, she said the council's decision was more about the project itself and not about the concept of having an assisted living facility. 

Roman said she grew concerned with how the project was unfolding when it was improperly noticed and there was no citizen engagement at the first Planning Board meeting.

"The citizens, rightfully so, felt that this was being slam dunked, crammed through and we don't want your opinion," Roman said.

Despite the developer "squandering the goodwill" of Marco Island residents, Roman said she was still interested in the project, but the developers needed to come in with their best and final offer.

"Well, this is neither the best nor the final because this morning, we got an email with changes to this petition that we were hearing tonight," Roman said. 

Prior to the City Council's vote that resulted in the rezoning failure, another motion was made to continue first reading until the petitioner could work out some of the concerns that were voiced Tuesday.

That vote, however, failed by a 4-3 margin. Chairperson Erik Brechnitz and Councilors Jared Grifoni and Larry Honig supported the continuance.

"I believe we owe it to the people that are willing to spend their money and time to do something constructive for Marco Island and hear them out," Honig said. 

Grifoni called the failed motion to continue "an emotional reaction" and said it sent an unacceptable message to residents that there was nothing the petitioner could do to the project that would make it acceptable.

"To say there is no way they can do it and give them a chance, it's unfortunate," Grifoni said.

More: Noticing error will require Planning Board to rehear assisted living facility proposal on Marco Island

More: Council supports changes LDC code change that would aid assisted living facility buildout

More: Guest commentary: The elephant in the room

 

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