Studying a study: Council discusses permit fees, rentals and trees

Lance Shearer
Marco Island Councilor Becky Irwin and David Leaser of the island’s Beautification Committee led off with a proposal for “Ten Thousand Trees in Ten Years.”

Monday night, during a session with a seemingly light agenda, the Marco Island City Council took up a variety of issues, from building permit fees, short-term rentals, and planting trees to how the current COVID surge is impacting the city’s workforce.

After recognition of employees Herbert Burkart and Oscar Hernandez, along with A/V technician Martin Luna, who produces the video that broadcasts the council’s deliberations, Councilor Becky Irwin and David Leaser of the island’s Beautification Committee led off with a proposal for “Ten Thousand Trees in Ten Years.” While planting trees might seem to be as uncontroversial as possible, the concept, illustrated by renderings of trees planted in swales, brought a host of questions and objections, both from council members and members of the public.

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Leaser referenced a “$90,000 direct benefit per tree,” which if you do the math, would indicate an overall economic impact of $900 million for the 10,000 trees envisioned. He said Marco Island has 10 to 12 percent tree coverage, versus a national average of 27 percent, and said trees, particularly deciduous trees rather than palms, reduce runoff, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and electrical usage.

Councilor Rich Blonna wondered about the trees breaking up sidewalks and Councilor Claire Babrowski focused on maintenance requirements and the potential for storm damage. Both questioned whether the trees would cause swales to back up drainage. Council Chair Erik Brechnitz noted that adjacent property owners are responsible for maintenance of swales and questioned whether that would also be the case for trees planted therein.

During public comments, citizens brought up service vehicles blocking the street due to lack of parking space, liability from people falling on broken sidewalks or roots, and other priorities on which the funds might better be spent. Each speaker against the proposal made a point of their love of trees, and several thanked Leaser for the initial presentation. Former councilor Howard Reed, speaking in the first of his numerous appearances at the podium for public comments, said “I rise in limited qualified support” of the tree proposal, while taking issue with the value claimed as being more apt for northern climates where lower sun angles lead to greater shading of buildings and therefore greater savings on air conditioning.

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The second reading of an ordinance to subdivide one lot into three separate tracts for San Marco Health led to a 6-1 vote in approval, with Councilor Joe Rola in dissent. Members of the public complained about the insufficient smoothness and leveling of bike paths and a bocce court.

Presentation of a building permit fee study, and proposed revised fee schedule commissioned and recently delivered, led to extended discussion, with Chief Building Official Raul Perez, appearing in person, backstopped by representatives of MGT Consulting calling in. The fees have not been updated or revised (increased) in 10 years, despite 23 percent inflation during that time, leading to Marco Island recouping only 60 percent of its costs in permitting – $1.6 million vs. $2.6 to $2.7 million – and falling well behind other jurisdictions.

Councilor Greg Folley, noting that “user fees are preferable to general taxes,” said Marco Island charges only 45 percent of what other municipalities levy. City Manager Mike McNees weighed in with the observation that “the fundamental message is, we are seriously undercharging.”

While stressing the new fee schedule envisioned was, at this point, just a discussion item and not a hard and fast proposal, MGT Consulting floated raising fees for construction of a 2,500 sq. ft. house from $2,500 to $4,263, and a representative commercial building from $40,000 to $74,000. Some fees would go down, they noted, such as replacing a water heater and site work.

Brechnitz took the microphone to note “I was disappointed in the level of information we got. The detail wasn’t there. No mention of how many permits were issued, how many inspections performed.”

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The ongoing question of how to deal with short-term rentals, a hardy perennial, came back for discussion, with a proposal by Blonna that the council consider adapting Collier County’s ordinance and tailoring it for the island. “I would like to turn the Collier County ordinance to staff to tweak specifically for Marco Island,” he said.

“This is an issue that seemingly will not go away,” said Brechnitz.

“Procedurally, we are prohibited from doing anything on this now,” said Vice Chair Jared Grifoni, since not enough time has elapsed since the last time council dealt with it. City Attorney Alan Gabriel said there are ways the council could get around that stricture.

“There’s no point in passing ordinances if the fines don’t get paid,” said Brechnitz. “People know we don’t collect the fines.”

McNees finished up the meeting with the City Manager’s Report, noting that up to 18 city employees have tested positive for COVID-19. “We are creeping up to 10 percent of the work force,” he said, and “if we require people to use their own leave” to quarantine, “we incentivize them to come to work” when they might be spreading the virus.

Council will meet again on Jan. 24.