City-county summit: Council and commission meet to discuss island issues

Lance Shearer
Correspondent

The two governmental bodies who most closely govern Marco Island came together Tuesday for a joint session. Collier County’s Board of County Commissioners met with the Marco Island City Council in the commission chambers at the County Government Center in East Naples.

The session was a workshop, more or less a “getting to know you” for the five commissioners and seven council members, although many of them already work together. This was not an official meeting for either board, no votes were taken or decisions made.

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The two boards sat facing each other at tables, with the raised dais left empty. Marco Island officials including City Manager Mike McNees, Fire-Rescue Chief Chris Byrne, and director of community affairs, took to the microphone at various times, and Public Works Director Tim Pinter and assistant to the city manager, Casey Lucius, also attended.

The only two items on the agenda, beach erosion and silting at Tigertail Lagoon and Sand Dollar Island and overcrowding at the boat launch ramp at Caxambas Park, bracket the island from the extreme north end to the southern tip.

Both Tigertail and Caxambas are county parks, highlighting the importance of intergovernmental cooperation. Two other items that came up for discussion, cleaning up Marco Island’s “front door” at the Jolley Bridge, and concerns about Goodland, meant that the workshop’s areas of concern essentially marked the outline of the island.

Tigertail

City Council Chair Erik Brechnitz, who lives at Hideaway Beach, took the lead on the Tigertail issue, introducing a video showing the area and laying out the concerns. The area had been severely damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and lost 45 percent of its wetland habitat since. Tidal flow has also been reduced by 45 percent, and at the current rate, the north end of the lagoon could close off in a year, turning the lagoon into a landlocked pond.

“We are one major storm away from the collapse of the system,” the group was told. The county commissioners were quick to declare their “100 percent support” for taking steps to protect Tigertail, in the words of Commission Chair William McDaniel. “What can we do at the county level to assist?”

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Commissioner Rick LoCastro, the District 1 representative who is vice chair of the county commission and whose district includes Marco Island, said “this meeting isn’t to get our support. You already have our support.” At the same time, he noted that the county “is not committing to dollars yet.” Some environmental groups, he pointed out, “say the lagoon hasn’t deteriorated, it’s just changing.”

It is changing at a rapid pace, said City Councilor Rich Blonna. “This is happening at an expedited rate that’s amazing.” And Brechnitz said noted that any fix is unlikely to resolve the issue permanently. “We will have to do this again,” he said. The Hideaway Beach Tax District, he said, will bear most of the estimated $3.2 million cost, with the county covering something like 20 percent.

Caxambas Park

Caxambas Park is in danger of being loved to death, as overcrowding of the launch ramp and parking facilities, particularly by commercial tour operators, has squeezed out some residents from being able to use the park. Blonna, a kayaker, said he is one of those.

The location is zoned as a park, said McNees, and “lots of activities taking place there are not allowed by the zoning code,” although “we do not want to hurt the businesses” working out of it.

“The things we have done have stopped the Wild West show there, but the thing Mr. McNees mentions” – rezoning – “is a big heavy lifting thing.” County Parks and Recreation Director Barry Williams told the group rezoning typically is a six to nine-month process, and “the clock has started. We would like to finish by January 1” of next year.

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Unlike a previous City Council meetings where the chamber was full of people who make their living from jet skis, etc., no members of the public made the trek to the county government center, and there was no public comment during the session.

McDaniel said many users at Caxambas, individuals as well as commercial operators, come from the east coast. “That park cannot accommodate all those users,” said Councilor Joe Rola.

“Marco Island is the front line,” said Commissioner Penny Taylor. “They all know about beautiful Marco Island.”

Collier Parks & Rec. regional manager Melissa Hennig said that out of 175 permits total issued to commercial watercraft operations, 46 of those representing 22 operators were primarily based out of Caxambas Park.

Of all the meeting participants, the one doing the lion’s share of the talking was often LoCastro. While this is not surprising, as his position representing Marco Island on the county board made him something of a pivot point for the session, even among notoriously loquacious elected officials, he has a reputation for copious verbiage. He came in for a few good-natured jibes for this, including debate on how much time he should be given when he addresses the Marco City Council. One comment from McDaniel rose to where he made a point of publicly apologizing to LoCastro, saying, “I meant no disrespect.”

LoCastro took it all in stride, saying “I appreciate being able to speak at your City Council meetings as long as I want.”

One after another, the participants finished up by lauding the format and intergovernmental communication and saying they should repeat the meetings annually.

The Marco Island City Council will hold their next regular meeting in their chambers on March 7.