LOCAL

The good, bad and the ugly: The top stories of 2022

Will Watts
Correspondent

When you look back at the headlines that dominated the last six months on Marco Island, the news was not all good; but fortunately, there were still many positives to report locally.

Like what, you ask? Marco Island Academy completed their campus, a dream made into reality. The city completed an impressive makeover of Veterans Community Park, and as we speak, the finishing touches are going on a new state of the art emergency center at the city campus.

There were also challenges, maybe none greater than Hurricane Ian.

Snook Inn employees sort through gift shop T-shirts that got wet from Hurricane Ian's storm surge on Oct. 1.

Weathering the storm

Wednesday, Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa, an island off the coast of Fort Myers, as a Category 4 storm. And while Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and areas to the north got the worst of the storm, Marco Island, Goodland and Isles of Capri weren’t spared.

Water did the most damage. On the north end of Marco Island, a portion of the parking lot of Snook Inn was overtaken by wet T-shirts, with employees laying them out on the pavement to dry. The almost 5-foot storm surge had spoiled the offerings from the gift shop and caused “extensive damage” to the beloved restaurant, senior manager Megan Criser said. The hut and the bar underneath it was gone, torn to shreds.

“We have a standing building, so we’re all grateful for that,” Criser said. “We have more water damage than wind damage.”

A resident tosses a chair into the debris pile at Ville de Marco West. Hurricane debris and cleanup can be found all along the Coast. Monday, Oct 10, 2022, we took a look at the areas on and around Marco island.  Condos, Home and businesses in the Old Marco area clean out their belongings after storm surge filled the area. "I'm just glad my parents weren't here for this" said as he talks about cleaning out the condo his family has owned for years.

Down the block on Palm Street, Martina Smith was inspecting the damage at Boardroom Tavern and her Smith House restaurant and bakery.

“We lost everything in our kitchen, all of our refrigeration,” Smith said. “But in saying all of that, we are blessed.”

In Goodland, the storm surge was unexpected for Angela Loduca. “It didn’t seem like it was going to be that way,” she said, having remained at her home with her 17-month-old child, where the surge covered the floor. “If I knew it was going to be like that, I definitely would have split.”

On the other side of Marco, Osteria Capri's chef-owner AJ Black was lending a helping hand to neighbors and cleaning up from the storm. Water levels in Capri's canals crept atop many residents' docks by 11 a.m.

Collier County saw $2.2 billion in damage to property, according to officials. Meeting for the first time since Ian swept through Southwest Florida on Sept. 28, the Collier County Commission received a detailed report about building damage, debris clean up, power restoration and why the curfew is necessary.

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Goodbye Dome Homes

The destruction wasn’t limited to land. The remaining four Cape Romano dome homes collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico following a final lashing by Hurricane Ian, photos and videos from a local sheller confirm.

The top of one of the Cape Romano dome homes is barely seen above the water on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. Hurricane Ian swept through Southwest Florida on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022, causing these iconic homes to sink.

Alex Demooy of Breakwater Adventures and Athena Custodio, both of Naples, were out shelling on Friday following the storm when they came across what remained of the iconic and popular structures. At one point in time, they were fully on land, built in 1982, but erosion had in a sense pushed the homes into the water. After Hurricane Irma in 2017, two of the homes sunk.

Marco City Council hears first reading of rental ordinance

It was back to business in October after as City Council. Once preliminary matters were concluded, the council got into dealing with the measure, which was passed by Marco Island’s voters with 56.9 percent of the vote in August but does not take effect until after a first and second reading to the council, and with the chance for councilors to tweak or amend it.

In citizen comments, Ed Issler said 80 municipalities in Florida have similar ordinances, “many stricter than Marco Island,” and the proposed STR is “very very very workable.” Jay Benedetti said the vote has been taken, it’s a done deal. Martin Winter warned of huge legal costs to the city for the “biggest piece of garbage ordinance ever.”

A motion passed 4-3, with Grifoni, Irwin and Councilor Claire Babrowski opposed. Implementation of the ordinance was handled with more dispatch, with Brechnitz pointing out “the implementation plan is really a staff function,” not the purview of the City Council.

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Round 1 goes to Isles of Capri

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

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.”

Brechnitz and Folley retain seats, Marco City Council adds Palumbo

With 100 percent of the precincts reporting in the November election, incumbents Erik Brechnitz and Greg Folley have won re-election to the Marco Island City Council. Joining them will be Darrin Palumbo.

Folley was the top vote getter with 27.9 percent of the vote (7,014 votes). Brechnitz received 27.6 percent or 6,945 votes. Palumbo was third with 16 percent of the vote (4,021).

Collier County Court Administrative Judge Rob Crown swears in Marco Island City Councilors Greg Folley, from left, Darrin Palumbo, and Erik Brechnitz. The Marco Island City Council swore in new and re-elected members on Monday, Dec. 12.

Christine Dowell received 3,598 votes (14.3 percent). Nanette Arlene Rivera received 3,563 votes (14.2 percent).

Who won seats on the Collier County School Board? Not the incumbents

The votes are in, and challengers Jerry Rutherford, Kelly Lichter and Tim Moshier have been elected to the Collier County School Board.

They were decided victories, with Rutherford winning 65.4% of the vote, while Lichter took home 58% and Moshier 60.5%, according to early returns.

The Collier County School Board is made up of five seats covering five districts. Although in Collier, school board members are elected countywide, they must live in their districts.

They serve staggered four-year terms, overseeing 48,000 students in public schools, including charter schools.

Hideaway dredging project balances human, natural aims

The Tigertail/Sand Dollar habitat was already in trouble – and then Hurricane Ian blew through. Now a roughly $4 million project is underway to restore the health of the system and water flow – but the work is under the gun to be completed before the beginning of nesting season for sea turtles and birds on May 1.

At the northwest tip of Marco Island, the area that includes Hideaway Beach, Tigertail Beach, Sand Dollar Island and Sand Dollar Lagoon is a place in continual flux, where ocean currents, storms, and man-made events have brought massive reconfiguration over the past several decades.

Since 2017’s Hurricane Irma, the natural berm that protects the lagoon has been eroded, with subsequent storms causing sand to overwash Sand Dollar Island and contribute to filling in the lagoon.

Crews work at a staging area on Marco Island’s north shore. A roughly $4 million dredging and renourishment project is underway at Hideaway Beach to keep Sand Dollar Lagoon healthy.

“We’ve lost 15 to 20 acres of wetlands since Irma,” said Mohamed Dabees, vice president of Humiston & Moore Engineers, and project engineer for the Hideaway effort. “We are moving roughly over 400,000 cubic yards of sand to restore Sand Dollar Island and recreate the sand spit and barrier system.”

“Total wetland area will be increased by relocating the sand spit seaward of its present location to where it was located in approximately 2017,” Dabees said in a paper on the Hideaway project published in “Frontiers in Built Environment.” “The reconstructed beach berm will provide enhanced resiliency to high frequency weather events. Sediment will be sourced from the existing sand spit and an innovative sand trap that will maintain the lagoon entrance open while providing beneficial re-use for excess sediment that continues to accumulate at the end of the spit.”

The project will not cost Marco Island taxpayers a dime, said Erik Brechnitz – except those who own property at Hideaway Beach Club. Through the Hideaway

Crowds throng Veterans Park for new bandshell and tree-lighting

This year’s Marco Island Christmas tree-lighting ceremony was two celebrations in one. To kick the evening off, the city’s government leaders celebrated the reopening of Veterans’ Community Park after a year-long remake, with thank yous, speeches and a ribbon cutting at the new Unity bandshell under balmy skies. Then, the bandshell stage was turned over to the younger generation for what many attendees – and they numbered well into the thousands – felt was the main attraction, the gyrations of wave after wave of “tiny dancers” dressed in colorful holiday costumes.

Mermaid Tails dancers entertain as the sun sets. Marco Island ushered in the Christmas season and the newly spruced up Veterans’ Community Park at the tree lighting on Saturday evening, with thousands in attendance.

The climax was reached around 7 p.m., when the skies darkened sufficiently to show off the festive Christmas Island Style tree, which was illuminated after a benediction and a NASA-style countdown. To complete the evening, Southwest Florida country artist Joel Fry and his band entertained with a concert of original and cover songs.

Marco Island Academy completes its state-of-the-art facility

How much electricity does it take to power a shiny new high-tech high school? One Watt.

Jane Watt, the chair of the Marco Island Academy board, is the founder and visionary who with the sheer power of her determination brought MIA from a widely scoffed at dream to a collection of modular trailers that nevertheless produced academic excellence among its students, and now to a gleaming, permanent state-of-the-art facility – and all without taxpayer dollars.

MIA’s athletic fields were the last piece to be completed.  Marco Island Academy has virtually completed their new state-of-the-art $15 million dollar facility.

Key to the successful completion of the school was getting “buy-in” from some high-net-worth donors and convincing them to put their dollars behind the Marco Island Academy concept.

Hannah Morse, Lance Shearer, Andrea Stetson, Jim Turner and Kate Cimini contributed to this report.