Marco Island approves rezoning for assisted living facility

Marco Island City Council voted 6-1 Monday to approve a rezoning for a new assisted living facility on a 10-acre lot across from City Hall to serve the city's aging population.

The rezoning of the lot at the corner of South Heathwood Drive and Bald Eagle Drive will allow an assisted living and memory care facility of 86 units and 92 beds. The rezoning would also allow for an in-patient hospital except for psychiatric and substance abuse.

Marco Island City Council Vice Chairman Greg Folley said the project meets the needs of the community. 

"You have an elderly and aging population here that doesn't have access to an assisted living facility," Folley said.

Preliminary rendering of proposed assisted living facility on Marco Island.

There are 36 assisted living facilities in Collier County with 2,846 licensed beds, and the closest one to Marco Island is approximately 12 miles away, according to Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration.

Out of the approximately 18,000 Marco Island residents, 50.8% are 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census, and that is projected to increase in coming years.

The percent of residents older than 75 will grow from 29% of the community in 2020 to 38% in 2040, according to the Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse of the Shimberg Center for Housing Studiesestablished at the University of Florida in 1988 to promote safe and affordable housing.

Folley said his father lived in an assisted living facility near his sister's house in Michigan, allowing her to visit him regularly after work.

"If she would have had to take a large period of every evening to drive to a more distant location to see him, that would have precluded her from seeing him almost every day," Folley said.

Previously:Marco Island council to hear rezoning request for assisted living facility

And:Marco Island council candidates open door to assisted living facility during forum

In 2019:Marco Island City Council rejects assisted living facility

Natalie Kirstein, a Realtor who sells properties on Marco Island, said the independent living facility will benefit elderly residents by allowing them to safely live on the island.

"People don't want to leave this island, they don't want to leave their church, they don't want to leave their friends, they don't want to leave their social network," Kirstein said.

Marco Island resident Maria Tobin said her mother-in-law lived in an assisted living facility in Naples and that it was safer for her to live near a hospital. Physicians Regional Medical Center — Collier Boulevard, the hospital closest to Marco Island, is 14 miles away.

"She fell several times under the care of the assisted living facility and she needed to be transported to the hospital. It was very convenient that she was there, that she was close," Tobin said.

Marco Island City Councilor Joseph Rola, the only councilor who voted against the rezoning, said the project will result in an increase in the number of dwelling units allowed per acre.

Rola said the increase violates the city's comprehensive plan, a document that includes the principles and guidelines for the economic, social, physical, environmental and fiscal development of the city.

"The intent of the comprehensive plan is simply to reduce density on the island," Rola said.

Daniel J. Smith, director of public affairs with the city of Marco Island, speaks to City Council on April 5, 2021.

Daniel J. Smith, director of public affairs with the city, wrote in a report that the proposed project is consistent with the comprehensive plan. 

In a similar fashion to Rola, former Marco Island City Councilor Howard Reed said the purpose of the rezone to a Planned Unit Development is to allow the developers to build more units than what the city would allow without the PUD.

"We should be doing everything we can on this island to limit density, not find ways to increase it," Reed said.

Marco Island resident Bruce Merklinghaus, who lives two houses down from the lot on San Marco Road, said people living off the island may move to the assisted living facility, which will be run by the Arizona-based company Watermark Retirement Communities.

"I believe that the overall concept of an ALF on this island is a little bit beyond what our island can handle," Merklinghaus said.

Preliminary rendering of a park next to the assisted living facility and at the rear of the NCH medical facilities on 40 S Heathwood Dr., Marco Island, FL.

NCH may replace urgent care building

Marco Island Hospital, a subsidiary of NCH Healthcare System, is the owner of the rezoned land, and was a co-applicant of the rezoning request along with the developers of the assisted living facility.

Paul Hiltz, chief executive officer of NCH, wrote in a letter to City Council on Feb. 9 that the health care company is under contract to sell a portion of the land to Marco Island Senior Living, and another portion to Kenneth D. Goodman, as trustee of the Marco Park Trust.

City documents show NCH would keep 5.09 acres and sell 3.04 acres to Marco Island Senior Living and 1.87 acres for the construction of a park.

Goodman agreed to pay for the park parcel to donate it to the city, and the developers agreed to build and maintain the park for 30 years, at which point the city would have to cover its maintenance costs, a draft of an agreement shows.

Smith said the park will include two accessible restrooms, water fountains, picnic tables, benches, trash containers, bike racks and fitness equipment. 

Hiltz wrote in the letter to City Council the transactions are subject to several contingencies including the rezoning the City Council approved Monday.

Hiltz also wrote NCH has committed to use the net proceeds to help pay for the costs associated with the design, construction and equipping of a new urgent care facility to replace the existing center located on the property. Once the sale of the land is finalized, the NCH Board will evaluate the urgent care facility project in September.

"The existing urgent care center will remain open during the new building construction to avoid any interruption on medical services," Hiltz wrote.

Preliminary rendering of the proposed NCH urgent care center building on Marco Island which will replace the current center located at 40 S Heathwood Dr., Marco Island, FL.

Hiltz wrote that if the NCH Board does not approve the construction of the new urgent care facility, the company will invest the net proceeds of the transaction on Marco Island.

"These funds will be utilized to upgrade and equip our existing urgent care center and medical office facility on the island," Hiltz wrote.

Reed called Hiltz's letter an "almost commitment" from NCH.

He advised councilors to postpone the final approval of the rezoning until the city gets a "firm commitment" from NCH.

Marco Island resident Terese "Teri" Sommerfeld speaks with City Council on April 5, 2021.

Marco Island resident Terese "Teri" Sommerfeld, who lives near the lot on San Marco Road, said she is concerned because the NCH Board has not issued a statement supporting the construction of the new urgent care center building.

"Now we are going through the CEO of NCH when the board has had at least a year to weigh in on this project. So I'm suspect that there is no sincerity towards the urgent care center," Sommerfeld said.

City Councilor Erik Brechnitz said NCH has put its integrity on the line.

"If they don't follow through, it would be hugely damaging to their reputation on Marco Island and beyond," Brechnitz said.

Marco Island resident John "Jack" Patterson, who is a trustee of the urgent care center, said he spoke with Hiltz last week about the new building.

"You can have your concerns about the hospital board, but I feel certain we have satisfied what your concern was," Patterson said.

Marco Island's top headlines of 2020:COVID, 'new council,' water quality, growth

Other concerns addressed

Residents spoke about other concerns they have such as what is going to happen to the center's unofficial helipad used for medical emergencies and to the lot's old seawall now that a park will be built in the area.

Marco Island Fire-Rescue Chief Christopher Byrne said he will research to find alternatives to the center's helipad.

As for the seawall, Smith, the city's public affairs director, said the developer has agreed to redo the seawall with a railing system.

Monday's approval caps a long road for the project.

On Feb. 1, City Council voted 6-1 to give initial approval to the rezoning request but asked staff to address questions that were left unanswered before issuing a final approval. Rola was the only councilor who voted against it.

On Dec. 4, the city's planning board recommended approval of the rezoning request.

On Jan 22, 2019, City Council voted down a proposal for a 12-acre development that included 143 units for seniors because some councilors and residents said the project was "too big" for Marco Island.

Contact Omar at omar.rodriguezortiz@naplesnews.com, and follow him on Twitter as @Omar_fromPR. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.