City Council debates Blue Zone Complete Streets project

Andrea Stetson
The Blue Zone Complete Streets project is a checklist of ideas to use when building or redesigning sidewalks, bike lanes and city streets.

With the Marco Island short term rental vote over, City Council meetings are tamer now focusing more on issues of water quality, landscaping, taxes and roadways.

Tuesday evening, council members spent about an hour debating adopting a Florida Department of Transportation Blue Zone Complete Streets project that is a checklist of ideas to use when building or redesigning roadways. The plan includes adding more walking and biking areas, increasing public transportation and adding landscaping.

Dan Smith, director of community affairs, says it does not dictate plans, instead it is a roadmap or checklist for transportation.

“It makes us look at everything when we look at roads,” Smith explained. “This reinforces this as we start making changes to our codes; this emphasis on other modes of transportation.”

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Councilwoman Becky Irwin is a big supporter of the plan.

“I live near Collier Blvd., and I walk on the streets. I walk on the sidewalks. I bike. There are a lot of people there. We are like an outdoor gym. From dawn until after dusk there are people walking, biking, pushing strollers. Even in August and September, when it is our off season, it is packed. It is like I-75 for pedestrians, so I really encourage us to use the best strategies to make it more walkable for everybody who uses that.”

Councilman Richard Blonna agreed.

“This is an excellent proposal,” he began. “This sets the groundwork for streets, walkways and multi-use paths moving forward.”

Some council members had concerns about the wording. They feared it would lock council into accepting things they might not want to approve.

The Blue Zone Complete Streets project is a checklist of ideas to use when building or redesigning sidewalks, bike lanes and city streets.

Chairman Erik Brechnitz requested some wording be changed to allow councilmembers to have a choice rather than be forced to accept a project when another plan might be more impractical.

Councilman Joe Rola felt the plan did not always fit the Marco community.

“They were not really understanding the demographics and our infrastructure of the island,” he said. “There are ideas that cannot be implemented here. That is my problem. They might say this is a good idea, but if we can’t use the idea, it has no value.”

After a long debate, the wording was slightly changed to give City Council members more control. Then the plan was approved 6-1 with Rola having the dissenting vote.

Council members also voted for a rollback millage rate.

“It is very easy to raise taxes,” Council Chairman Brechnitz said. “Once taxes are raised, they never go back down again. I commend council for this budget. We have good working balances. We built two fiscal projects: a fire station and a new park and we did it without raising your taxes and that should be commended.”

“That is a tremendous accomplishment,” added Councilman Jared Grifoni. “Keep the tax burden down for people on this island. People on the island should not be penalized because their home value is artificially inflated. I am happy to support roll back again. It will help make our city a better place to live while also being fiscally responsible.”

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During a special session of the council meeting, state lobbyist Ronald L. Book spoke of legislative priorities and answered council member’s questions. He spoke briefly about vacation rentals saying he does not see it coming back on the ballot. He also addressed affordable housing, which is says is the number one issue in the state.

“They are looking to put pressure on county governments to say affordable housing is their fault,” Book said.

He also addressed skyrocketing insurance rates.

“There will be no short-term rate steadying,” he stressed. “Nothing will happen until Washington determines what we are going to do long term. There is just no quick fix.”

Of course, short-term rentals were not ignored, with a few people coming to the microphone during public comment to spew their views even though voters approved the new ordinance that requires a registration and lots of new rules for short term vacation rentals.

“I want to congratulate the citizens of Marco Island on casting their votes for the Marco Island rental program in the latest election,” said Ed Issler. I want to allay any fears for the people that voted no. I want them to know they are going to be able to let their grandkids visit at Christmas and their information won’t end up in China and their taxes will not go up. That is just not going to happen as a result of this ordinance happening. I encourage any citizen that wants an input to contact city council and come to city council meetings and be part of the implementation of this ordinance. No businesses are going to suffer losses. I feel it is time for us to all come together and work together to make Marco Island an even better place to live and a better place to vacation in.

Frances Cooper told the council that short term rentals bring lots of money to the island.

“I am not against what you have written in the ordinance except that noise is already covered, garbage is already covered, parking is already covered,” she said. “So, I just wanted to know what the extra ordinance will do to cover our rentals? If your long-term goal is to actually stop short-term rentals, I will have a problem.”

Mark Morze, owner of a vacation rental company, projected data about ways to make the ordinance more favorable to renters.

“Here is how we propose to amend this ordinance to prevent an expensive legal battle,” he said.

His chart showed everything from ideas to help with noise to plans to give renters more control.

“Noise – any noise 25 feet at night or 50 feet during the day means you cannot even mow your lawn unless you are using scissors,” he stressed. “An ideal situation is where homeowners get notified within 24 hours so they can take action and figure out what happens and collect fine from renters.”

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