Year in review, part 2: Environmental issues dominate the headlines
[Editor's note: This is the second installment of our look back at Marco Island’s biggest headlines of 2019. ]
Environment news dominated the second half of 2019, testing one of the city of Marco Island's core principles: a world-class beach and natural environment.
From repeated issues with Madeira saga and attacks on burrowing owls, to red tide and water quality, the last six months of the year might make one question if we are doing enough to protect the environment.
July started with bitter-sweet news. David Harden, interim city manager, said goodbye to Marco after six months of dealing with headlines generated by the police department, selecting a new police chief and preparing the city budget for fiscal year 2019-2020.
Harden spoke with Omar Rodríguez Ortiz about his time in the Navy during the Vietnam war, his family and why he asked former police Chief Al Schettino to resign.
"After learning some of the things that had been going on, I concluded that department really needed a cultural change and was convinced that it could not happen with the current leadership and that we needed a new chief," Harden said.
With the departure of Harden came Mike McNees, Marco's new city manager. McNees said he will bring changes to city government after local police officers and firefighters have been accused of having sex on duty, among other allegations.
"People need to know that they are getting their money's worth for the taxes they pay to support the city government of Marco Island," McNees said.
Later in July, Rodríguez Ortiz reported construction permits in Marco Island decreased amid a backlog caused by Hurricane Irma, according to data provided by the city's Building Services Division.
"Our numbers are not back to normal yet but our time frames (to respond to permit requests) are getting better," said Raul Perez, the chief Building official.
This month also was the beginning of the repeated issues with Madeira. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) sent two warning letters on July 22 to the Madeira on Marco Island condominium association and contractor RR Restoration after a department inspection observed damage to dunes and native vegetation.
"There is a pending building permit on file for re-roofing of the Madeira but no vegetation trimming/removal permit, vehicles on the beach, or staging lot permits have been filed or issued for this work," according to a city report.
In August, sidewalk violations soared and there was no mystery to the reason why.
Rony Joel, a former director of Public Works and general manager of the Water and Sewer Department, led a group of residents in reporting close to 500 possible sidewalk code violations.
"My goal (is) to keep our community safe and when we observe an unsafe condition, report it to the appropriate authority," Joel said.
Later that month an inquiry was launched into claims that Captain Dave Baer, acting Marco police chief, put malicious docs in employee files. The inquiry was initiated after the Naples Daily News filed multiple public records requests for emails and documents related to accusations that Baer, who was serving in an interim capacity until the last week of August, placed negative, unofficial documents in officers' employee files without their knowledge and due process to respond.
The quality of the water in Marco canals made headlines in August. The city was put on notice by the state that its waterways are impaired and in need of a corrective plan after City Councilor Sam Young asked FDEP to officially acknowledge the water quality issues.
"One way of accelerating restoration for an impaired water body is for local governments to begin pollutant reduction activities and/or develop a restoration plan," wrote Jennifer Espy, water quality assessment program administrator.
The Madeira saga continued in August. Myrnabelle Roche, Marco's code enforcement magistrate, issued $1,050 in fines against the Madeira condo association and two contractors, including RR Restoration, for several beach code violations, Rodríguez Ortiz reported.
Dennis Kariores, operations manager at RR Restoration, said during the hearing the dune destruction was his fault. "What happened on the beach was totally my fault," Kariores said. "I take full responsibility." Roche, in agreement with the city, delayed issuing fines for damaging the dunes until the next hearing on Sept. 24.
Roche delayed issuing fines against Madeira two more times in September and October.
In the beginning of September, Tracy L. Frazzano was sworn in as Marco's first female police chief.
Frazzano said she was honored and thanked city officials and others for their support. "This outpouring support is appreciated and it is a strong indication of our commitment to work together," Frazzano said at a City Council meeting.
Frazzano said she wants people to start judging Marco police officers for the things they are doing now and not for the department’s past controversies.
"I want to be the best police department and I think the officers here want to be the best. The way to accomplish that is that we need to start taking pride on the job and the best way for us to do that is if the media assists us in seeing that we are moving forward and not to keep bringing up the past."
Frazzano's statement about the role of the media was later referenced in a Naples Daily News editorial.
Less than a week after the interview with Frazzano, the city placed officer John Derrig on paid leave after it opened an internal affair investigation.
Derrig had twice been terminated from the department only to have been rehired through the arbitration process. In the most recent incident, which resulted in Derrig being reinstated with back pay, an arbitrator determined that the police administration had a vendetta against him when it fired him after an alleged excessive use of force situation.
Closer to the end of the month, city officials said they will investigate the newest claims of impropriety by its embattled police department that were outlined in a prospective lawsuit.
The city was aware of the sex-on-duty scandal involving at least four current or former officers, but the woman who was involved was now alleging violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and physical, mental and sexual abuse.
In September, Madeira continued to make headlines. The city wanted to keep the Madeira condo association and RR Restoration on a "short leash" after they did not deliver a dune restoration plan as agreed.
Attorney Joseph Natiello, representing the city, said during a code enforcement hearing on Sept. 24 that he did not object to a continuance of the case but that the defendants must provide significant progress before the next hearing.
"The city has no objection to the defense's continuance but we we would like see this be kept on a very short leash," Natiello said.
More police controversies, an attack against burrowing owls, fish and sea turtle deaths connected to red tide and medical marijuana occupied a big chunk of the news cycle in October.
Public records show the Marco Island officer who recently had resigned was demoted days before leaving the Police Department.
A public records request by the Naples Daily News revealed Sgt. Brian Granneman was demoted back to patrolman, effective Oct. 1, after police administration determined he did not demonstrate the ability to serve in the leadership position.
The thing that arguably riles up islanders as much as allegations of police misconduct is attacks on burrowing owls and mother nature.
A house security video showed a real estate agent putting mothballs into an owl burrow on an empty lot in an attempt to poison them, according to Audubon Everglades.
Premiere Plus Realty, a real estate company, said an independent contractor was let go from the company following this incident. "We value the Florida wildlife and ecosystem," said Jillian Young, marketing and communications director of the company.
News related to the environment continued to drop on Marco like dead fish during red tide season.
Dozens of dead fish washed ashore on Marco as government agencies warned of high levels of the organism that causes red tide. The fish found on South Beach were likely dead due to red tide, according to a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) spokesperson.
A week later, six dead sea turtles were found washed ashore on Marco in the span of two days.
Later in October the city said it will be issuing a notice to Madeira for once again violating dune protection ordinances after a code enforcement officer observed contractors from Greenscapes of Southwest Florida cutting foliage without a permit in the dune area of 350 S. Collier Blvd on Oct. 21.
After violations soared, City Council instructed City Manager Mike McNees to provide details for a proposal that would help residents with sidewalk repairs.
"The city could do an overall bid and ask for unit pricing [...] so if a resident needed a vendor to work on their sidewalk they could go to a pre-approved list," McNees said during a City Council meeting on Oct. 7.
Medical marijuana made a comeback in October. Columbia Care became the first medical marijuana dispensary to submit a building permit application to the city of Marco Island.
A building permit document provided by the city shows Columbia Care Florida LLC requested the Building Services Division on Oct. 1 to be allowed to improve a retail space for a company dispensary on 695 Bald Eagle Dr.
Later that month, a draft of an ordinance to ban recreational marijuana on Marco became dead on arrival after it failed to garner support from the majority of City Council members.
The ordinance, presented by chairperson Erik Brechnitz for discussion only, would prohibit the sale, use, distribution, cultivation and warehousing of "non-medical use marijuana."
Also in October, City Council passed a motion instructing staff to propose a code amendment that would regulate temporary signs in the right-of-way of commercial districts just like the city does in residential ones.
In November, Marco city councilors said they want heftier fines against Madeira and others who repeatedly break city environmental codes.
“It’s an insult,” said City Councilor Larry Honig. “It’s actually a stab in the face.”
Among other news about the environment, sea turtle lighting code violation notices increased 37 percent in 2019. One of the repeat violators of this ordinance was Madeira.
Roche, the code enforcement magistrate, issued in August a $50 fine against Madeira despite the city's request of $500. In September, Roche issued a $500 fine against Madeira for violating once more the sea turtle lighting restriction ordinance despite the city's request of a $3,500 fine.
Later it was reported the city could have new sea turtle ordinance for 2020 nesting season.
After reporting that a realtor had allegedly put mothballs into an owl burrow on an empty lot in Marco, the Eagle followed up with how Audubon Everglades and its volunteer owl watchers were trying to protect burrowing owls.
The efforts include a program that helps residents dig burrows in their front yards as empty lots get developed, leaving the owls with less places to have and protect their fledglings.
A document from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, named Roger. M. Fleming, Marco resident and owner of the lot where the mothball incident took place, as the suspect in the incident.
November was not absent of police-related news. Nearly 21 months after being accused by then-Police Chief Al Schettino of leaking confidential information, an investigation into the Marco police records clerk was not substantiated.
The investigation’s findings mean the police department could not confirm or refute allegations that Heather Comparini leaked information last year about a battery complaint made against former City Manager Lee Niblock.
In December, police and news about the environment continued to grab headlines but nothing prepared islanders for the death of Marco's beloved swim instructor Dottie Weiner. Swim instructor to thousands, Weiner died Nov. 24 at 97-years-old.
In police news, City Council approved a $35,000 settlement in the case of Comparini.
Before officially approving the settlement with its former police records clerk, City Council made the decision more than a month ago behind closed doors.
In environment news, City Council accepted a proposal to identify source of nutrients affecting local canals.
City Manager Mike McNees would start negotiating with Environmental Research and Design the details of the contract that will be presented to City Council in January for its final approval, according to Lina Upham, purchasing and risk manager.
FDEP ordered Madeira and contractor RR Restoration to pay $15,500 for damaging dunes and removing native vegetation.
The consent order signed by Douglas Spong, president of the condo association, and James Fred Bonner, owner and CEO of RR Restoration of Georgia, includes corrective actions which both parties are responsible to carry out.
"Sadly, the biggest threat to these habitats is human development and trampling of the dunes," wrote Colleen M. Gill from Collier County Waterkeeper. "Every dune that is removed, is only presenting future risk of flooding and erosion."