Isles of Capri high-rises get thumbs up, with last-minute changes by developer

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

After a marathon hearing, Collier County commissioners unanimously approved a controversial high-rise development proposed for Isles of Capri.

The decision followed last-minute changes by the developer, including significant changes to height and density.

The applicant agreed to cut the height of the project's three luxury residential towers from 168 to 122 feet.

Other adjustments included:

∎Decreasing the number of condos to 80 from 108.

∎Lowering the number of floors to nine from 14.

Location of proposes high-rises on Isles of Capri.

The developer also sweetened the pot by offering to provide $5,000 per dwelling to help build affordable housing in the county. With a total of 80 condos planned that would equate to $400,000.

The promised money will go into the county's affordable housing trust fund – where there are dollars in waiting for future projects.

The board approved a required rezoning and a growth plan amendment in the same vote late Tuesday.

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

Earlier:Collier County Planning Commission postpones vote on controversial Isles of Capri high-rise project

A tough decision for county commissioners

While commissioners voted unanimously for the multimillion-dollar upscale waterfront development, the decision didn't come easy.

The hearing went late into the night.

The project faced steep opposition. Island residents continued to vigorously fight it, despite the modifications, still seeing it as an eyesore and as a threat to their small island charm, property values and the environment.

"We're committed. We are together and we are united – andwe are against it," said Michael Cochran, a boat captain and 13-year resident on the island.

He, like many objectors, wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "Save Our Capri Lifestyle."

"We don't want it rezoned. There is no reason to rezone it," he said.

Cochran accused the developer of taking a "bully approach" on a project residents saw as "totally incompatible."

The development is proposed on a 5.32-acre site. Most of the surrounding property consists of one- and two-story buildings on what's known as the "business island."  The tallest building now stands at about 100 feet.

The eleventh-hour changes didn't sit well with Cochran and other opponents, who prepared their comments for the hearing based on the project advertised for the hearing.

Opponents complain of a "bait-and-switch"

During public comment, several residents described the modifications as a "bait-and-switch," saying they'd been blindsided – and left at a disadvantage in their efforts to stop the project.

Long-time resident Virginia Hogue tore up her planned comments in frustration.

Normally, she said, "I do not fly by the seat of my pants," so she felt incapable of a rebuttal to the new plan.

Several opponents asked county commissioners to send the project back to the county's planning commission for another look, to allow for the advisory board's input and more public discussion on the revised plans before a final vote.

A few challengers wanted the county commission to reject the original proposal, ignoring the new one. That included long-time property owner George Merkling.

"This is a different project," he said.

He complained his speech was "busted up," by the developer's unexpected shifts in height and density, and he didn't appreciate it.

"I hate to say it, you are giving us a lot of fodder for an appeal, if this thing goes the wrong way," he told county commissioners.

Last-minute changes lead to positive vote

The late changes clearly made an impact on the minds of commissioners, with several acknowledging that at its original height of 168 feet the project was a "non-starter."

Commissioner Bill McDaniel made the motion to approve, with a second from Rick LoCastro, who recently took over as the board's chairman.

Rick LoCastro

In explaining his vote, LoCastro, whose district includes Isles of Capri, said he approved the towers to protect the islands from the potential for much more intense commercial development. The property was zoned C-3, allowing for a variety of commercial uses, including retail, restaurants and offices, by right.

Such zoning, LoCastro said, has ruined other parts of his district, allowing unfettered development, with no concessions or input from residents requested or required by the county.

"You will have no voice on what is going to go there," he told residents who fought the rezoning.

McDaniel agreed, saying it's a given that something will happen on the property and the residential towers appeared to him to be the far better option.

The alternative, a large commercial center, spanning up to 80,000 square feet, would not only have a greater impact on the island, in terms of traffic and noise, but it would not come with any of the benefits the developer offered up with his towers, he pointed out.

The towers will be heavily landscaped, to minimize their view from the street.

Other benefits include utility improvements, valued in the millions, pledged by the developer.

The developer has offered to build two new culverts to improve the quality of bay waters and to install a new sewer main and pump station large enough to support the transition from septic tanks to a central sewer system for all island residents.

If the investments don't happen for whatever reason, the applicant has agreed to donate their value – or at least most of it – to the county for affordable housing. The benefits combined are valued at about $3.2 million.

Residents reluctant to compromise

Rich Yovanovich, the developer's land use attorney, told commissioners the new plans weren't presented or discussed with opponents in advance of the final hearing because they never appeared open to a compromise that would allow the project to move forward.

"They told me no. I took them at their word," he said.

He said it's not unheard of to see give-and-take before a decisive vote by county commissioners on a development, especially one of this size and scope, when it faces resistance.

"That happens all the time," Yovanovich said. "There is nothing unusual about that."

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.

Rendering of previous version of the project, at 168 feet.

Planning director changes recommendation

Based on the changes shared publicly Tuesday, Mike Bosi, the county's planning and zoning director, changed his recommendation from denial to approval during the hearing.

At a lower height and with the developer's offer to fund affordable housing, he found the project consistent with the Growth Management Plan and compatible with the neighborhood.

He told commissioners he felt comfortable with the modifications, despite not having the chance to review them in any detail, as they addressed his primary concerns.

The payment toward affordable housing would be in lieu of the developer building or providing its own. A county program allows developers to bump density up to 16 units per acre when converting property from commercial to residential, if they agree to provide affordable housing equal to 10% of their total units – or money toward it.

The amenities designed for residents will create lower-paying service jobs.

"This is going to create additional demand on affordable housing," Bosi cautioned.

Mike Bosi

In September, the county's planning commission recommended denial after failing to negotiate or reach an acceptable compromise with the developer after a two-day hearing. At the time, the advisory board raised various concerns, including height and compatibility with the neighborhood.

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

Before that vote, Yovanovich offered to reduce the height and density of the towers, to a lesser degree, but the offered changes didn't go far enough to move the needle with the board, or Bosi.

Marketing materials shared by SaveCapri.org.

County received dozens of letters in opposition

Residents submitted about 50 letters and 516 postcards against the project to county staff. More than 75 residents signed up to speak in opposition Tuesday, with some deciding to cede their three minutes of allowed time to others.

A grassroots organization, known as Save Isles of Capri, collected more than 1,000 signatures against the development. The group – and a second organization known as Capri Community Inc. – remained steadfast in their efforts to keep the subject property's legacy C-3 zoning.

Local residents — or "Capriers" — repeatedly stated they'd rather see a funky, destination shopping center like Tin City in Naples than high-rises akin to bigger cities, such as Miami. Even if it would generate more than twice the traffic, bringing in outsiders for dining, shopping and entertainment.

Residents fear the uncharacteristic development will create a domino effect, with other property owners swiftly following in the developer's footsteps, creating a high-rise canyon effect on the islands.

Matt Crowder, president of Capri Community Inc., told county commissioners that's not merely an assumption, or conjecture.

"We have heard from them," he said of owners in waiting.

Virtually the entire "business island," designed to serve residents, could soon be swallowed up by residential development, Crowder said.

"There is no real public benefit," he said. "We believe that."

After the disappointing vote, Crowder said in a statement his organization has no plans to appeal the county commission's decision.

"I believe we showed a unity, determination and eloquence unmatched by any other citizens’ group. Regardless of the outcome, we will hold our heads high. We stayed Capri strong, and we fought the good fight. To have done otherwise would have been the real failure," he said.