A comprehensive discussion: Council delves into plan update

Lance Shearer

Marco Island City Council held another marathon series of meetings on July 19, running from one o’clock in the afternoon to 10 at night, perhaps to make up for only holding one session in July in deference to the Independence Day holiday.

The evening session was dominated by discussion of revisions to Marco Island’s Comprehensive Plan, with a vote scheduled on the agenda to send the plan to Tallahassee for state government review. The comprehensive plan, which the city is required to update every 10 years, is the “big picture” document that lays out in broad strokes how a municipality will deal with issues in the future. Covering needs such as roads, recreation and green space, water and sewer, provision of city services and coastal management, the comprehensive plan review has been worked on for months in a series of workshops, virtual meetings and planning board sessions.

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Shepherding the review has been an outside consultant team led by Dr. Margaret Banyan of FGCU and Alexis Crespo, senior vice president of Waldrop Engineering. The city’s consultants on the project seemed to believe approval of the changes presented was a pro forma matter, but council members, spurred on by a large contingent of island residents present in City Council chambers, had a different take.

Banyan appeared remotely via video link, while Crespo, along with city senior planner Mary Holden, was at the meeting to take questions. Much of the controversy was related to that perennial hot-button topic, residential rentals, along with a suggestion the city look favorably on providing “affordable” or workforce housing.

One of Banyan’s slides showed representations of the comprehensive plan, labeled as “broad/long term intent;” the land development code, tagged “specific development requirements; and the strategic plan, marked “priorities and funding.” She specified repeatedly that “all three documents have to work together,” and the comprehensive plan is the first piece.

Monday’s meeting was a “transmittal hearing,” with councilors voting on whether or not to send it to the state for review as is. They did eventually vote to transmit it, with some amended verbiage, but not before a thorough discussion.

Councilors including Erik Brechnitz had numerous questions and misgivings about the document as presented. “There are a lot of things I want to talk about. I feel somewhat overwhelmed,” he said, and focused on the section that said “the city will provide a range of housing choices.’ The city doesn’t provide anything.”

“The idea that Marco Island is going to become affordable,” he said, “is ludicrous,” to applause from the attendees.

Councilor Rich Blonna said he had originally been opposed to spending $138,000 on a consultant to steer the process, but after seeing the work that went into it, had changed his mind.

“We could never have done this. Is it a perfect document? No. Is it a final document? No. As a blueprint for what we can do to preserve and protect our island, it’s fabulous.”

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Councilor Joe Rola said the plan as written is “not really workable,” calling it a whole new comprehensive plan as opposed to merely a “transition” from the 2009 plan. Holden assured him that “nothing in here will obligate the city to provide workforce housing,” which speakers pointed out can be built for (by private enterprise) and occupied by managers or professionals earning over $100,000.

Council vice chair Greg Folley made a motion, later amended after Banyan warned the council was “bumping up against state statutes,” that changed any statement the city “shall provide” any specific housing to “encourage as appropriate.”

A number of residents spoke during the public comments, mostly opposed to the plan, with the conversation growing heated and Blonna saying he found one remark “personally offensive,” while representatives of several organizations, including Brad Cornell of Audubon of the Western Everglades and Megan Greer of the Blue Zones Project spoke in support.

Councilor Claire Babrowski noted the “real deadline” from the state is March 2020, but the council was “trying to get this done before our contract with Dr. Banyan expires.” She noted emails circulating on the island have contained considerable amounts of misinformation.

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Councilor Becky Irwin pointed out the “lots of meetings over months and months” and thanked staff for their work. “Look at the staff. Look at the bags under their eyes,” she said.

In the end, the council voted to send the revised comprehensive plan to Tallahassee, on a 6-1 vote with only Rola voting no.