Old Marco, new restaurant: Debate, alleged scare tactics and pushback
It’s not easy deciding the future of a city. It’s balancing rules and regulations with people’s quality of life. It’s intertwined with threatening letters and a bombardment of people spewing facts and fiction on both sides of the issue.
After a five hour and eight-minute meeting, where more than four hours were taken up by just one issue, Marco Island council members finally fulfilled their job by casting a vote, but none of them were really happy with the decision.
The issue this month was over permission for a restaurant to build in Old Marco, but the controversy and decision making is similar for many of the controversial issues council members have faced recently from the short-term vacation rentals to a pickleball center, to water quality. This time council members were asked to approve or deny a plan for a full-service restaurant on Bald Eagle Drive. The planning board had already approved the site development plan, but aggravated neighbors of the proposed restaurant filed an application asking council members to deny it. So, the drama played out at City Council. Attorneys for both sides spoke about the project. Then 19 residents came to the podium almost equally divided on the issue.
The 168-seat restaurant complies with the number of parking spots, it meets the landscape buffer requirements. The project dropped from 268 seats to meet previous requests.
“It complies with all land development codes,” said Daniel Smith, director of community affairs. “It complies with all Marco Island codes. It has been approved by the planning board.”
“It is a pretty straightforward project,” added Jeff Wright, an attorney with the Henderson Franklin Law firm who represents the proposed restaurant. “There really is no basis for denying this project.”
But protestors claim the dead-end street will cause severe congestion that will harm the nearby Snook Inn and several adjacent residential communities.
“I welcome competition. They will bring more people to our area. It will bring more people to the Snook Inn,” said Luigi Carvelli, manager of the Snook Inn. “The issue that I have is the location. It is a dead end. The size of the building and safety needs to be taken into account.”
Residents showed photos of congested streets and people parking in the swales.
“The construction of this restaurant will create unsafe conditions for all the people living in this area. It will make residents hostages in their own home,” said Ben Farnsworth. “The traffic pressure point at Palm Court and Bald Eagle will be dangerous. It will form a permanent blockade for people trying to get to their homes. I am not anti-development. There is not the capability in Old Marco to handle this restaurant.”
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“If we have traffic there parking in front of my house, that is not fair to me,” added Rhonda Gloot. “It is not right.”
Attorney Gregory Woods with Woods, Weidenmiller, Michetti and Rudnick agreed.
“Things are not realistic,” Woods began. “Just think about the parking situation. They are asking for 168 seats for patrons. Then there are shifts of at least 20 employees and you have 37 parking spots. If 20 are for employees that leaves only 17 spots for 168 patrons. That just does not work. Don’t be bullied by this applicant. Old Marco is a unique piece of property. Have them make the footprint of the restaurant smaller and add some more parking.”
Others spoke in favor of the restaurant and property rights.
“If this gets cancelled, I think it will send a bad message to future businessmen,” said resident Dennis Baumgardner.
“If a business follows all the guidelines there should be a reasonable expectation that it be approved,” added resident Mark Melvin. “They have bent over backwards to meet the demands of the city. We need fine dining on Marco. We don’t have much of it.”
After hours of testimony council had to vote to approve, approve with conditions or deny, and that was the focus of the struggle the decision makers had.
City attorney Alan Gabriel told council members if they vote no they need to explain why. He admitted it would be hard to fight a lawsuit in court since the applicant met all the code requirements.
Councilmembers Rich Blonna and Joe Rola wanted to deny the project and made a motion for that but did not have enough support.
“When a plan comes before growth management staff, they are required to look at the letter of the law for the land development code and there is no wiggle room,” Blonna explained. “Then it goes to the planning board and they do the same thing. But then it comes to the council, and we can look at the more subtle issues that go beyond the land development code.”
Blonna said the land development code allows the number of cars on a single road, but that is a general rule and does not look specifically at the road in Old Marco. As cars keep circling looking for parking spots, they need to turn around in a dead end, cross over a street to look for parking on the other side and travel down the only road that leads in and out of the area.
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“Yes, it meets the numbers, but what is the impact on the neighborhood,” Blonna stressed. “Where will these cars go when they can’t find a spot? I think our job goes beyond looking at the numbers. I ran as a pro business candidate, and I really support the businesses, but Marco is also an island of neighborhoods and Old Marco is an area with old, antiquated streets. It is not like looking at restaurants in the mall where you have two roads intersecting and many options. We have to look at that as a distinct neighborhood and it has to be treated differently. “
Councilman Erik Brechnitz said he really wanted to vote no but could not legally find a reason to do that.
“I was not concerned about Mr. Caravelli, I was concerned about the neighbors,” Brechnitz said. “The deciding issue for me was if the comp plan trumped everything, there were plenty of things in the comp plan that would have given me reasons to oppose this, but land development code trumps it, and they did meet all the requirements of the land development code. I hated the vote.”
As the clocked ticked past 10 p.m. council finally voted four to two (councilman Darrin Palumbo did not vote due to conflict of interest) to approve the plan with two conditions. The restaurant must use the parking across the street for employees and valet so customer traffic isn’t crossing the road, and they must have a plan to dredge the water by their docks that gives them extra parking credits.
Councilman Erik Brechnitz was threatened. A letter from an attorney, representing the proposed restaurant in Old Marco, threatened to sue him both as a council member and an individual.
“I thought that the owners of the restaurant had acted in a very underhanded way when they started sending me that letter,” Brechnitz said. “It was a clear attempt at intimidation. I frankly don’t know whether it violates any of the ethical standards of the Florida bar association, but I intend to find out. It is a very bad way for the owner of a business to start a relationship on the island.”
The letter alleged illegal activities but had no specific allegations. It states that “certain individuals are tortuously interfering, and certain city officials may have engaged in potentially illegal or unethical conduct.”
The letter then states that an investigation continues, but so far it has shown that individuals engaged in illegal activity.
“This is a serious accusation,” Brechnitz continued. “Someone has accused me of illegal activity, yet there is no specificity is there. It was extremely disturbing to me. It is hurtful. It is clearly an intimidation of an elected official that is trying, with a $6,000 salary, to help the City of Marco Island. I am very, very angry. I think this is intimidation and it is insulting. Our public records are available, so tell Mr. Perlman (at Dickinson and Wright) to take his best shot.”
Council chairman Greg Foley was the only other council member to receive the letter.
“They can do what they want,” Foley said. “I didn’t do anything I should be worried about. There is nothing out there. They are not going to find it. I just think they are blowing smoke. I am a lawyer, and that is what I call a nasty lawyer letter. They are just trying to scare people. I did my best not to hold it against the applicant. He is still entitled to a fair hearing. I think it was uncalled for and stupid, but I think the best thing to do is ignore it.”
The past two meetings of Marco City council were record breakers for length. Earlier this month the meeting droned on for four hours and 30 minutes, while the most recent meeting was a record breaking five hours and eight minutes. These were the first two meetings with Chairman Greg Foley at the helm.
“That is not a proficuous start. But when you have this type of proceeding it is not good to break it up,” Foley explained. “Sometimes there is just no good answer. You could limit the number of public speakers, but I don’t think that would serve the community well. I think everybody should have their say.”
Councilman Rich Blonna said meditation helps him stay on task.
“It took all my energy to stay focused,” he admitted. “I am a meditator and I really find that it is really helpful at these meetings. It helps me focus on these things. Hopefully we won’t have more of these.”
Blonna agreed that there really isn’t a solution when so many people are so passionate about a subject and want their voices heard,
“When you have open mic and you want to encourage people to speak and you have 19 people at four minutes apiece, and the lawyers were really tedious and it just went on and on and on.”
“I told Greg after the meeting he held two records for the first two meetings,” Councilman Erik Brechnitz joked.”
Twice during the gathering event Foley had to make a motion and have council members vote to extend the meeting beyond its usual time frame. But Foley said there is a positive side to these lengthy gatherings.
“Good or bad, I think we have an awful lot of community interest in things,” Foley concluded. “Residents really, really care about their community, so they come out in droves to express themselves. I am not one to shut that down.”