Marco Island council to hear rezoning request for assisted living facility

Preliminary rendering of proposed assisted living facility on Marco Island.

Marco Island City Council will evaluate on Jan. 19 a request to rezone a 10-acre lot across from City Hall to pave the way for a new assisted living facility, Chairman Jared Grifoni said Friday.

The city's planning board earlier this month voted unanimously to recommend rezoning the lot where an NCH urgent care center is located from commercial to a planned unit development or PUD.

If approved by council, the PUD designation would allow for an assisted living and memory care facility of 86 units and 92 beds. The rezoning would also allow for in-patient hospitals, excluding psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals.

Walt Chancey, architect and developer partner of the assisted living facility, said this proposal is different than the one voted down by City Council last year. At the time, some councilors and residents said it was too big for the corner of Bald Eagle Drive and San Marco Road.

"This is a different project and I hope you view that in that light," Chancey said during the board's meeting Dec. 4.

The new proposal reduces the acres to be developed from 12 to 10 and the units from 143 to 86, eliminating all independent living units, said Daniel Smith, director of community affairs with the building department.

"This is a completely different project," Smith said.

If council accepts the proposal, it must approve it for a second time on Feb. 1 before the rezoning becomes official, Grifoni said.

Site plan for assisted living facility on Marco Island.

From October:Marco Island council candidates open door to assisted living facility during forum

From 2019:Marco Island City Council rejects assisted living facility

NCH, the current owner of the parcel, would subsequently sell five of its 10 acres to finance the construction of a new health facility building, replacing the existing one, Chancey said. NCH would renovate the building next door that houses medical offices.

"The only net new building will be the assisted living facility because the urgent care will be a replacement of an existing building," Chancey said.

NCH would sell more than three of the remaining five acres to Marco Island Senior Living LLC, leaving the rest for the construction of a park, as stated in the report.

"Proceeds of the land sale would stay on Marco Island to be used to help fund the construction of a proposed new urgent care center pending NCH Board approval," Shawn McConnell, director of marketing and communications with NCH, wrote in an email Wednesday.

"The new urgent care is proposed to be built while the existing center is still operational," McConnell wrote.

The Marco Park Trust would buy the land for the park and deed it over to the city once the assisted living facility is completed, Chancey said. The developers would build the park and maintain it for five years, he said.

However, Smith said the park is of no use to the city, and that people would have to walk or drive through NCH or the assisted living facility's property to access the park.

"We believe that the PUD ownership should maintain that site until we find something that we really need that property for," Smith said.

Impacts on the island

Preliminary rendering of proposed assisted living facility on Marco Island.

A potential increase in 911 calls and traffic were some of the concerns discussed by the planning board members before recommending approval of the zoning change.

Marco Island Fire-Rescue Chief Christopher Byrne said his department would be able to handle emergency calls from the assisted living facility.

Byrne said emergency calls for falls or certain medical conditions might go down if 90% of the facility's residents are from Marco because they would receive better care than if they were to continue living by themselves.

Chancey said the majority of the facility's residents will come from Marco Island and nearby communities like Goodland, Isles of Capri and Hammock Bay.

"For the most part, it is for that family in that community to have the ability to age in place here on the island without having to leave," Chancey said.

As for traffic, Smith said if the land under the current commercial zoning designation is developed at capacity it would cause more traffic compared to the proposed PUD.

Planning board member Marilyn Dahl said she saw it differently.

"When you are talking about a decrease in traffic, it's actually if the existing property was totally build-out," Dahl said. "What I'm actually reading is that there is going to be about a 40% increase in traffic versus what is existing there right now."

Tim Pinter, public works director, said Dahl's analysis was correct.

Preliminary rendering of proposed assisted living facility on Marco Island.

Member David Vergo said the PUD will result in less traffic for the area in the long term because NCH or any future owner will try to "maximize the value of the property" under the current zoning designation.

"This land is going to get developed, period," Vergo said. "It's too valuable for (this) piece of property not to be developed."

Another concern among members was about the ability of the retirement community company to evacuate its residents before a hurricane makes landfall.

Peggy Beasley, executive director of Watermark Retirement Communities, said the company owns similar facilities across Florida, including on barrier islands, and that they pre-pay for bus services in case residents need to be evacuated.

Beasley said their facilities evacuate 72 hours prior to landfall.

"It happens much earlier than when (other island) residents will be evacuating because we are going to err on the side of caution," Beasley said.

Where do councilors stand?

Marco Island City Council candidate Richard Blonna, left, talks with City Council Vice chair Jared Grifoni, prior to the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce city council candidate forum, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at the Marco Island Council chambers.

During a forum in October among City Council candidates, now-Chairman Grifoni said he would consider voting for the project if it meets the requirements of the city's land development code.

City staff found that the proposed zoning changes "are consistent with the goals, objectives, and policies, future land use map, and the elements of the comprehensive plan," according to the report.

"We have a legal duty to give every project that comes in front of us the opportunity to present their case," Grifoni said at the time.

Grifoni said an assisted living facility would allow elderly residents to stay on Marco and be close to their loved ones.

Last year, Grifoni voted against the original proposal as did Councilor Erik Brechnitz and former councilors Howard Reed, Sam Young, Charlette Roman and Victor Rios, according to the minutes of the meeting. Former Councilor Larry Honig voted in favor.

Councilor Richard Blonna said at the time he had attended two public workshops organized by the developer and that the original proposal had deficiencies.

"The new proposal that they are presenting on the same site really corrects all of those deficiencies as well as issues that residents brought up such as traffic, noise, density," he said.

Blonna said he would make a decision after receiving feedback from city staff and the planning board.

On Wednesday, Blonna said he was "very happy with the thorough review that the planning board did."

Councilor Joseph Rola, a former planning board member, said during the forum that the demographics on the island support having an assisted living facility on or near the island.

Rola said he would encourage a facility of a "proper size" located in an area that "concurs" with the city's comprehensive plan, which offers guidance to the city in terms of development, facilities, infrastructure and conservation.

"The demographics support an ALF (assisted living facility) on the island; the question is how big," Rola said. "I would personally prefer to start small and grow into something bigger if we have to."

Councilor Claire Babrowski takes her seat on the dais for the first time after being sworn in during a Marco Island City Council meeting in the community room on Monday, December 7, 2020.

Councilor Becky Irwin said during the forum that the new proposal should be considered if it "fills a need in the community." She said her father lives by himself on the island and would benefit from a new health facility.

"There are also a lot of people here who don't have kids to help them," Irwin said. "It is very important to have a skilled facility here to take care of our neighbors."

Brechnitz wrote in an email Tuesday he had some reservations about the project "as it pertains to improvements to the urgent care center and the proposed park."

Vice Chairman Greg Folley wrote in an email Wednesday he was "planning on hearing the details and considering the proposal with an open mind if and when it comes before the council."

Councilor Claire Babrowski, until recently a member of the planning board, voted in favor of the zoning change during the last board meeting. Babrowski did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"Congratulations to Marco (Island)," Babrowski said at the board meeting after the zoning change was approved.

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