What's the deal with the iconic Cape Romano dome home? It's complicated.
The same question is on the mind of many in Southwest Florida: "What's the deal with the domes?"
The iconic Cape Romano dome home sits hundreds of feet offshore near Marco Island and presents an otherworldly picture for explorers. Years ago, these structures were planted on land but have slowly fallen into the water due to decades of erosion and the impact of natural storm events.
Since the site of the domes is now submerged, the land is state-owned and within the Rookery Bay Aquatic Preserve, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
"The Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of State Lands have not made a determination regarding the future of these structures," said Weesam Khoury, a deputy press secretary with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
"(The domes) are very unique in their land jurisdiction," Khoury added.
She told the Naples Daily News that despite the lands being owned by the state, the actual dome structures still reside within private ownership. However, the owner, John Tosto, would need to go through a permitting process with the state to perform any actions on the home.
Khoury said the state currently has no record of any recent action from the owner but noted he will be involved in future decisions for what will happen to the domes.
To make matters more murky, the responsibility of the parties involved in the dome home can fluctuate based on potential shoreline changes in the future, according to Khoury.
Owner's rocky journey with domes
In 1980, the mysterious dome structures were built by Bob and Margaret Lee on the Cape Romano shore. They eventually sold the home, and the domes now sit partially submerged near the shoreline, with two of the six domes collapsed into the sea.
Tosto bought the home for $300,000 in 2005 and had plans to bring the structures back onto the beach. These hopes were eventually dashed by significant erosion brought on by hurricanes.
Attempts to contact Tosto for comment were unsuccessful.
Before land ownership shifted to the state, Collier County began fining Tosto after deeming the home uninhabitable and ordering it demolished in 2007.
The county fined Tosto $250 per day for 3,844 days, resulting in fines of almost $1 million, according to Collier County spokesperson Connie Deane.
Tosto has since asked that the liens be reduced or waived due to financial hardship.
However, since jurisdiction has shifted, decisions, such as if the fines will need to be paid, are now up to the state, Deane said.
The condition of the domes has continued to dip over the years. Numerous marks from visitors throwing shells and other objects into the home are now visible, and various names can be seen etched into the concrete.
Ten years ago, in 2009, the market value of the property was listed as $200,000, according to the Collier County Property Appraiser's website. This is a sizable decrease from its asking price of $300,000 in 2005, and the figure has continued to decrease since, with the value eventually dipping to $125 in 2014.
With future of 'unique' tourist attraction unclear, ideas are plentiful
Despite the murky nature of what lies ahead for the home, ideas from other interested parties have been plentiful over time.
Several years ago, Naples-based nonprofit Oceans for Youth created an online campaign in order to raise money to sink the domes and turn them into an artificial reef.
It was eventually taken down after only raising around $200.
Wayne Hasson, the president of Oceans for Youth and a Naples resident, would still like to see the home taken apart and turned into an artificial reef for divers and fishers to use. However, he said the domes would need to be transported about 30 miles offshore in order to find clear water.
Hasson made it clear that no matter what, the state needs to make a decision soon about the domes. He said they pose a threat to boaters and explorers who he's seen climb on the structures.
"It's an eyesore, and it's also dangerous," he said. "There's nothing beautiful about it ... The state needs to do something."
Despite some seeing it as an eyesore, the home has garnered quite a reputation, making it a must-see for many area tourists.
Janet Maples, a Tennessee resident and the daughter of original builders Bob and Margaret Lee, said the domes have always been sought after by curious explorers. She recalled walking up and down the beach on the cape with her months-old daughter while house sitting the domes in the early '90s.
"We would have sightseers almost every day," she said.
Sailors in passing boats would pull out binoculars to catch a look at the unique dwelling place, and locals always talked about the house.
"I was in the drugstore one day on Marco and someone was going, 'I hear they protect that place with machine guns,'" she said with a laugh. "It fascinated people from when daddy was building it."
In the home, solar panels were used to generate electricity and heat water, and rainwater was collected around the dome using a cistern.
"(My father) was like way before his time," she said. "It was completely self sustainable."
Maples would like to see nature take its course and the domes to simply drop into the ocean, allowing more animals to utilize the structures.
"That would be awesome for them to keep going like that ... The birds certainly love them, so once they drop underwater, I'm sure that the other creatures will."
Ron Michaels, a tour boat captain with Doc Jimmy's Cure-all Marine Adventures, said about 80% of his customers ask to see the domes.
"Maybe they saw them 20, 25 years ago when they were a kid," he said. "A lot of people come back with their kids ... It's a popular feature."
Some of the appeal for the structure is now the fact that the domes are slowly sinking away, according to Jack Wert, the executive director and CEO of the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The tourism official said the domes entice many tourists looking for a one-of-a-kind experience.
"From our point of view, it’s been a great thing for people to go and see and something for us to promote," Wert said.
Despite deterioration adding to its potential charm, Wert would like to see action taken to stop the domes from disappearing completely.
"This is unique to Collier County, and we think that’s important to keep in mind," Wert said. "It's something we’d like to see preserved if it’s possible."
While the convention and visitors bureau wouldn't be directly involved in a restoration or preservation process, Wert would like the entity to be included in future talks regarding the domes. The CVB could encourage and engage other entities, such as businesses, to preserve the domes, if the state allows, according to Wert.
"I think that would be our role to show the positive side of preserving something like that," he said.
Michaels said that "most of us locals" want to see the domes left relatively untouched. However, he noted that it would be nice to have the home marked as a navigational hazard with a blinking light at night.
The domes have value due to the structures attracting sea life, he said. In the winter months, people can also witness hundreds of birds sitting atop the domes in search of heat.
"A lot of people fish around them," he said. "In fact, a lot of our local captains that are making a living will a lot of times go out to those domes ... and fish those domes. Why move a viable fish haven that's thriving?
"It'd be great if none of them ever sank."
Reach Andrew Wigdor at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrew_wigdor