Collier planning commission sides against controversial high-rises on Isles of Capri

Laura Layden
Marco Eagle
Rendering of proposed tower project on Isles of Capri.

In a win for hundreds of opponents, Collier County planning commissioners have sided against a controversial high-rise development on Isles of Capri.

On Thursday, the board voted 6-1 to recommend denial.

Only commissioner Joe Schmitt dissented, saying if the current commercial zoning remains in place it would “just be a disaster” for the island.

After the vote, Schmitt reminded opponents the project could still move forward. 

“The fight isn’t over,” he said.

The project would require a rezoning and a growth plan amendment.

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A rendering shows the location of the project. The developers of a proposed high-rise complex on the Isles of Capri held an informational meeting Thursday afternoon at the South Regional Library, with about 130 Capri residents in attendance.

Collier County commissioners to make final decision

County commissioners will make the final decision. 

While the battle isn’t over, Isles of Capri resident and business owner Jeri Neuhaus said: “Right now there is a little bit of celebrating going on. We have to celebrate our little wins as well.”

The near-unanimous decision by the planning commission against the project came after a two-day hearing that at times became contentious, accusatory and argumentative.

As originally proposed, the development would include three 168-foot residential towers — with up to 108 million-dollar-plus condos.

Before the vote, the developer’s attorney Rich Yovanovich offered to reduce the height and density of the towers.

The changes didn’t go far enough to win the support of skeptical planning commissioners — or county staff, who continued to recommend denial. 

Mike Bosi, the county’s director of planning and zoning, said the developers would have to provide affordable housing — or at least money toward it — as a “public benefit” and lower the towers if they wanted the staff’s blessing. That’s based on how he reads the language in the Growth Management Plan.

“Staff is not concerned about the intensity,” he said.

After a marathon hearing on Sept. 1, the planning board continued the developer’s two-part request to this week’s meeting.

The second day included hearing from yet more opponents and a rebuttal from Yovanovich.

Commissioners asked hard questions and shared pointed views along the way — and even initiated talks of a compromise with the developer— before getting into formal deliberations and discussions, which didn’t last long.

At the end of the first day’s hearing, several planning commissioners encouraged opponents to meet with the developer’s representatives to see if they could negotiate something more favorable in two weeks’ time.

While Yovanovich did in fact meet with a few of the opposition’s leaders between meetings, he told the board the groups fighting the development didn’t seem to want to budge, remaining steadfast in their efforts to keep the subject property’s current C-3 commercial zoning.

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The approximately 130 Capri residents in attendance were uniformly opposed to the project.The developers of a proposed high-rise complex on the Isles of Capri held an informational meeting Thursday afternoon at the South Regional Library.

Some residents would prefer Tin City-style destination

Residents and their attorneys have repeatedly stated they’d rather see a funky, destination shopping center like Tin City in Naples built on the waterfront property than high-rises akin to bigger cities, such as Miami. Even if it means more traffic on the island.

Yovanovich told the board a commercial project that includes several restaurants on the 5.32-acre site would be viable.

Isles of Capri residents — or “Capriers” — have vehemently opposed the plans for a residential conversion primarily due to height. They’ve argued the towers would stand out like a sore thumb — and set a bad precedent other developers are sure to follow on the island, ruining their small island charm.

Most of the surrounding property consists of one- and two-story buildings on what’s known as the “business island.” The island’s tallest building stands at about 100 feet.

During the hearing, Planning Commissioner Chris Vernon threw out numbers to see how far the developer might budge on height and density to address concerns the development would not be complementary or compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.

Ultimately, Yovanovich offered up a proposal to stagger the heights of the buildings, like a wedding cake, cutting the first to 144 feet, the second to 124 feet and the third to 135 feet — while reducing density to a total of 90 residences.

Several commissioners didn’t like the way the offer came about, including Robert Klucik, who said the process seemed more like an auction than a negotiation.

“It just seems strange to me,” he said.

Despite his best efforts, Vernon said he couldn’t get Yovanovich to offer up something he could support.

“That really didn’t move the needle for me,” he said of the revised plan. “I think it would have to be a lot more significant. I’m not willing to say at what level.” 

Commission chairman Edwin Fryer said the revised project still fell “way short” of the county’s standards for compatibility, so he couldn’t support it.

‘I’m not seeing that value’

For the same reason, Karen Homiak made the motion to deny the rezoning request.

Commissioner Karl Fry seconded the motion.

In his four years on the board, he said he’d never seen a project where no one in the community came forward to speak in favor of it, which influenced his decision.

He also noted a recommendation of denial by county staff is rare and he values its opinion.

Other reasons he gave for his disapproval included that he felt the project seemed to mostly benefit the developer and its future buyers, not the current residents, community, or county.

“I’m not seeing that value,” he said.

He also said he didn’t feel comfortable with the horse trading that led to the compromise.

As a “simple black and white person,” commissioner Paul Shea said he supported staff’s recommendation based on the project’s inconsistency with the neighborhood.

In his rebuttal, Yovanovich continued to argue the development would be complementary and compatible with the surrounding neighborhood — and that the county’s own policies encourage conversion away from commercial, allowing for at least 16 units per acre of residential development at the site. 

He pointed out there are many instances all over the county where high-rises have been approved and built near single-family homes.

After Thursday’s vote, Commissioner Vernon once again encouraged island residents to sit down with developers and to have meaningful talks about the potential for the long-idle site.

“Among you, there are probably some great ideas that no one has thought of yet,” he said.

Aubrey Ferrao, the developer of Fiddler’s Creek, a master-planned, gated golf community just north of Marco Island, is the prime owner of the property.

The developer goes under the name FCC Beach & Yacht.

Parts of the larger development have already been approved and already exist, including a marina.

A grassroots organization, known as Save Isles of Capri, has collected more than 1,000 signatures against what has yet to be built, including more wet slips and a 10,000-square-foot private restaurant for yacht club members.