Marco Island's top headlines of 2020: Coronavirus, 'new council,' water quality and growth

The coronavirus pandemic has turned people's lives upside-down this year, so it is no surprise it dominated the headlines on Marco Island.

In March, several events were canceled, like the Seafood and Music Festival and the farmers' market, to avoid the spread of the virus. Following the lead of Collier County, the city closed its pedestrian beach access and asked visitors to stay home.

City officials told the Marco Eagle how COVID-19 was changing their lives. Michael Murphy, who was fire chief at the time, said one of his friends was in critical condition because of the virus.

"This crisis is real," Murphy wrote in an email.

About a month later, Seminole Tribe Fire Chief Don DiPetrillo, a friend of Murphy for almost 40 years, died of COVID-19, Murphy said.

In April, City Council voted 4-3 to reopen city-owned pedestrian beach access following a two-week closure.

At the time, the beach was open for people with private access to the beach, like condo owners and hotel guests, and Marco Island Civic Association had closed Residents' Beach.

Howard Reed, who was a councilor at the time, said limiting beach access could not continue indefinitely.

"At some point we are going to try to go back to a normal life,"  Reed said during an April 6 council meeting. 

City Council Chairman Jared Grifoni, who was vice chair at the time, said it was OK to be outside during the pandemic.

"Being outside is a good thing as long as you are following the social distancing guidelines," Grifoni said.

Sam Young, who was a councilor, said Gov. Ron DeSantis' order to stay at home should be followed literally.

"I think there should be no beach access for anybody," Young said.

Two days later, City Manager Mike McNees used his emergency powers to keep the city-owned pedestrian beach accesses closed instead of opening them on April 13 as City Council voted.

In a news release, McNees wrote that he consulted with Councilor Erik Brechnitz, who was the chairman at the time, before making the announcement.

"It is clear that the social cost and community-wide anxiety triggered by the opening of even a single pedestrian beach access point is not worth the few walks on the beach it would provide for our residents," McNees wrote.

An information request made by the Marco Eagle later showed residents flooded the city with hundreds of calls and emails demanding city-owned pedestrian beach access points remain closed.

Brechnitz said the vast majority of emails he received after the April 6 vote were against reopening city-owned pedestrian beach access.

"I went to bed at 10 o'clock last night, had my inbox email cleared, and I woke up this morning and I had 142 emails," Brechnitz said then.

Brechnitz had voted in favor of reopening the city's pedestrian beach access as well as Grifoni, Reed and former Councilor Victor Rios. Former councilors Charlette Roman, Larry Honig and Young voted against it.

Brechnitz said the "anxiety from the citizens was overwhelming."

"We should be calming the waters, not churning them up and making people develop anxiety," Brechnitz said.

The information request also revealed McNees emailed Ruth McCann, executive director of MICA, to ask her if the association was considering to open Residents' Beach to pedestrians.

"Do you have any interest in opening your pedestrian access if we keep the public access closed?" McNees wrote.

In her reply, McCann told McNees the association had no plan to reopen Residents' Beach. She urged the city to close beach access to everybody "for the health and safety of the residents."

On April 29, City Council voted unanimously during a special meeting to reopen city-owned pedestrian beach access the next day. The vote happened after Collier announced it would open county-owned beach access and parking lots.

A couple of weeks later, City Council failed to pass a motion to sign a contract with a fireworks company to celebrate Independence Day. 

In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called on Americans to wear masks to prevent COVID-19 spread.

A week later, Collier County Board of Commissioners approved an executive order mandating the wearing of masks or face coverings in many business establishments located in unincorporated Collier.

In September, Marco Island city councilors said they opposed requiring face masks for farmers market attendants after city staff recommended a mandate to prevent the spread of the virus.

Grifoni said requiring face masks would be hard to enforce and that it would be in "conflict with existing city policy."

"I can't support that," Grifoni said during a council meeting Sept. 9.

Reed said science "does not at all support the wearing of masks outside unless people are congregating."

Vice Chair Greg Folley, who had selected by council after Young's resignation, said he did not support a mask mandate because "there is very little evidence of transmission outdoors."

Brechnitz said the "half-life of the virus in direct sunlight outside is one minute," and that "there is no health reason to require masks."

The virus can be transmitted in all areas, including areas with hot and humid weather, according to the World Health Organization.

Dr. Jayanta Gupta, epidemiologist, assistant professor and director of the public health program at Florida Gulf Coast University, said at the time that people should wear a mask indoors and outdoors if there is a possibility they will come in close contact (6 feet or fewer) with people who do not live in their household.

Last week, Naples City Council voted 4-3 to approve a resolution requiring people to wear masks in certain establishments.

Marco Island City Council had not voted to consider a city-wide mask mandate as of Dec. 28. Its next regular meeting is Jan. 4.

Christmas traditions were also impacted by the virus this year. 

A three-decades-old Christmas tree lightning ceremony and an event were Santa Claus arrives by helicopter were canceled by its organizers.  

Other events remained but adapted to the new times. A "reverse parade" were spectators drove through decorated parked floats replaced the regular Christmas parade.

As of Christmas Eve, the Naples Daily News reported that 21,428 county residents had been infected with the virus this year. Out of those infected, 17,175 lived in Naples, 527 lived in Marco and 14 were from Goodland.

Collier's cumulative total of COVID-19 fatalities had increased to 325.

Elections, appointments and marijuana

This year also was marked by the election and appointments of five new city councilors after two resigned, two did not run for reelection and one could not run due to term limits.

Young resigned for personal reasons in April, and City Council appointed Folley in June to fill the vacancy.

Roman and Reed announced during the summer they would not run for reelection this year, and Honig could not run.

It resulted in five candidates running for four seats of four-year terms each, and Folley running unopposed for a two-year term.

In August, over 60% of Marco residents voted yes to prohibit the cultivation, manufacturing, warehousing, distribution and sale of recreational marijuana within city limits. State and federal law currently prohibit recreational marijuana.

The Ban Recreational Marijuana PAC, chaired by resident Edgar "Ed" Issler, had previously gathered enough signatures to put the referendum on the ballot.

Rios resigned in October for personal reasons, too late for his seat to be added to the ballot, and Marco residents elected Becky Irwin, Joseph Rola, Richard Blonna and Grifoni as councilors in November.

In December, City Council appointed Claire Babrowski as councilor to fill Rios' old seat, making whole the seven-member body.

Water quality remains a high-profile issue

A list of Marco's top headlines is incomplete without water quality.

The city was put on notice last year by Florida Department of Environmental Protection that its waterways were impaired and in need of a corrective action.

In January, City Council awarded a contract over $130,000 to Environmental Research and Design for the first of two phases to evaluate the source of nutrients affecting local waterways.

A final report, which is part of the second phase, will be completed by August or September, said Jason Tomassetti, the city's stormwater engineer.

"After years and years of talking, we are finally gonna get some real data that we can base opinions on," said Waterways Advisory Committee Vice Chair David Crain during a committee meeting last year.

In February, the Marco Eagle reported the city had been disabling some of its 1,300 stormwater inlet filters for over a decade.

The filter, when installed with an absorbent material, is designed to capture trash, organic solids and oils from stormwater before they reach local waterways.

The city began purchasing filter inlets in 2006, and by 2018 it had purchased 834 of them installed by Suntree Technologies for over $730,000, said Timothy Pinter, director of public works.

The South Florida Water Management District, a regional governmental agency that manages the water resources in the southern half of the state, covered these expenses through a series of grants, Pinter said.

In September, McNees said the city would not make significant changes to its strategy to improve water quality until it receives ERD's final report.

"Before they ramp up further spending on water quality, (city councilors) want to make sure they are spending the money where it is going to do the most good," he said Sept. 4.

In December, during an annual meeting with the county legislative delegation, Grifoni asked for $425,000 in state funds for the San Marco Road water project

The city would spend an additional $325,000 in city funds to complete the project, Grifoni told the delegation, which was comprised by Reps. Lauren Melo, Bob Rommel and Sen. Kathleen Passidomo. Rep. David Borrero was not present.

The project would install dual 48-inch pipe culverts and an inlet structure under the San Marco Road, between Landmark Street and Copperfield Court, using an existing easement to link two large water basins separated by the roadway.

If completed, it would increase the amount of oxygen in the canal waters, improving the habitats for fish and wildlife, and reduce street flooding by allowing the water to circulate from one basin to another and vice versa, according to the city's request.

"City Council and the citizens of Marco Island are deeply invested in the improvement of water quality for our city but also for Southwest Florida," Grifoni said during his turn at the podium.

City Council selected the water quality project as a priority last month after it was recommended by city staff and Ron Book, the city's lobbyist, who spoke to council via the video conference application Zoom.

Pinter said at the time the project is part of the city's 10-year master plan for drainage improvements.

Book said the city should request under $500,000 in state funds for a single project that would create local jobs because funding will be limited due to the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on state revenues.

"It's no secret that we got a monster revenue shortfall," he said.

Before Grifoni and other speakers had their chance at the podium, Passidomo told them to not get their hopes up in getting state funds for their local projects. Passidomo represents Senate District 28, which includes Marco.

"I encourage you all who are asking for dollars to go ahead and file but don't get your hopes up," Passidomo said.

Growth continues on Marco Island

The announcement of multi-million dollar projects made headlines as more people call Marco their home every year.

In January, the Marco Eagle reported the design update for Veterans' Community Park included a 32-foot star-shaped bandshell.

The project, which includes the construction of other facilities, is estimated to cost over $8 million, Pinter wrote in an email.

In February, City Council voted unanimously to proceed with the architectural drawing of a new Fire Station 50 on the city hall campus.

The construction, which would include an emergency center, would cost the city $10.4 million to $11.7 million.

The demolition of the fire department building might start in the first quarter of next year, Fire-Rescue Chief Christopher Byrne said in October.

The Fire Station 50 project will be discussed by City Council on Jan. 4 and by the planning board on Jan. 15, Byrne said in December.

A $650,000 appropriation for the construction of Fire Station 50 was vetoed by DeSantis in June. DeSantis cut $1 billion in state spending due to the state's expected economic hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a $92.2 billion state budget for fiscal 2020-21.

DeSantis also vetoed a $1 million appropriation for the reconstruction of Goodland Drive.

The existing road, which is the only way in and out of Goodland, floods frequently during peak tides and storms, cutting access to the town.

The county's plan involves raising the roadway and adding cross-drain pipes to allow tidal flow to move from one side of the road to the other. The project is estimated to cost under $3 million, county spokeswoman Connie Deane wrote in an email in June.

The construction is expected to start in early 2021, Deane wrote in November.

Two appropriations to improve water quality in the city's canals never reached DeSantis' desk at the time, including the San Marco Road water project.

In June, City Council put on hold the city's program to take over the maintenance of approximately 240 miles of sidewalks during the city's capital budget meeting.

Roman said City Council instructed staff to develop a plan to take over sidewalk repairs before knowing the potential impact of COVID-19 on the city's budget.

"I support it in principle, but for this year I would pass," Roman said.

Folley said he would support the program only if the city could pay for it without raising taxes. Brechnitz and Reed concurred.

"I think longer-term the city is destined to take over the sidewalks, but it will be expensive," Brechnitz wrote in an email.

In July, Collier County's Airport Authority manager Justin Lobb said a new $9.5 million terminal at the Marco Island Executive Airport would open in September after months of delays.

"We are just experiencing issues with the contractor keeping the project on schedule and just overall coordination," Lobb said at the time.

The construction of the terminal began in April 2018, and it was originally scheduled to open in summer of 2019.

"We’re still expecting to have a soft opening, and then host a ribbon cutting event in early 2021," Deane wrote.

In August, City Council endorsed by consent proposals from Collier County to add trolley and ride-share services on the island and to make changes to two bus routes.

The county made the proposals as part of its Transit Development Plan, which sets the strategic guidance for public transportation in the community for the next 10 years. The TDP receives a major update every five years.

The "island trolley" route would start at the Marco Town Center and go south on North Collier Boulevard until it reaches South Beach before heading back north, said Randall Farwell, project consultant with Tindale Oliver.

These transportation initiatives would increase annual ridership on the island by 45,000, Farwell said.

Including additional initiatives benefiting other areas in the county, the annual cost to operate the TDP is estimated to be $6.9 million, said Michelle Arnold, director of the county's Public Transit and Neighborhood Enhancement division.

The annual capital costs over the 10-year period are estimated to be more than $5.3 million.

In December, the Marco Eagle reported 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.

The city's planning board in December 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.

One week before Christmas, the city completed a $2.23 million purchase of the Medical Arts Center to house the city's building department.

The city made the purchase using equal amounts of reserves from the building department funds and general fund, McNees said.

The about 9,100-square-foot building, next to the City Hall campus at 1310 San Marco Road, would become a service center for people requesting permits from the building department, McNees said in October.

The need for more office space did not happen overnight but instead took almost two decades.

The building and growth management departments had about a dozen employees when the city opened the City Hall building in 2001, said Laura Litzan, city clerk. The departments now have about double that.

These departments are processing more projects than they did two decades ago, according to Daniel Smith, director of community affairs with the growth department.

For example, the building department evaluated 3,725 permit requests in 2001, compared to 8,023 last year, Smith wrote in an email in October.

The Medical Arts Center building also would temporarily house firefighters as the city builds the new fire-rescue and emergency center.

"This property will provide for the administrative needs of the City of Marco Island far into the future," McNees wrote.

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