Spanning the years: Rancor persists after Esplanade, Marco Island settle bridge issues

Lance Shearer, Eagle Correspondent

When the dispute between owners of the Esplanade and the city of Marco Island was being negotiated, neither party wanted to say much about it. Now that a settlement has been agreed upon, some of those involved have plenty to say.

John Arceri, an attorney, Esplanade resident, adviser to both the Esplanade Marina and residential boards, and former city councilor, said he had "never seen such arrogance" as that displayed by City Manager Roger Hernstadt during talks between representatives of the Esplanade and the city. The property owners had repeatedly warned the city they had no legal easement and were encroaching on the Esplanade property in constructing the Smokehouse Bay Bridge, which is being renamed after longtime Marco Island architect Herb Savage.

Despite these warnings, Hernstadt dismissed "all of the Esplanade complaints and concerns. He made absolutely no attempt to develop a relationship with the Esplanade residents or unit owners and acted with the highest levels of resident dispresepct and arrogance I have ever seen," said Arceri. "Having dealt with some five city managers in the past dozen years, I was stunned by his attitude, lack of care and unwillingness to try and resolve a resident conflict. I've never seen such a level of arrogance."

Hernstadt responded on a personal level to the personal allegations.

"We made every effort to work with them. I offered to come to their condo association, which they never accepted," he said. "He's trying to make this a personal attack against me. It's that simple.

"I wouldn't bow to his will and his intimidation. That is correct. The facts of the case are very simple. The PUD (Planned Unit Development agreement) for the Esplanade required an easement. The people in the city at the time never verified that the easement was recorded."

In fact, there was no valid easement, as the city discovered when the Esplanade pressed its case, and in a settlement earlier this month, the city agreed to pay $83,000 to the Esplanade. In addition, they are responsible to pay an additional $17,000 for landscaping.

"We told them there was no survey and no easement," said Arceri. "You can't blame this on people from 12 years ago. You can't just build on someone's property." The city encroached on Esplanade property with the ramp and the footer for the bridge, and built a sea wall on top of the Esplanade's sea wall, he said.

Arceri estimated that with the city's legal fees and surveys it had to commission, the total cost to taxpayers was closer to $140,000. "The city spent $8-9,000 on a riparian rights consultant," he said.

Hernstadt disputed the $140,000 number, saying, "I'm glad our insurance company is covering our claim. Our cost is $25,000 for our portion of the insurance claim, plus the $17,000 for landscaping."

Bill Trotter just hopes that everyone can just get along and make nice. A former city councilor and chairman of the countywide Metropolitan Planning Organization, he is a sitting member of the city's Planning Board, an Esplanade 1 resident and president of their association. He pointed out that Arceri is speaking for himself as an Esplanade resident, and not for the board of directors or the property as a whole. But Trotter also agreed the matter could have been better handled by the city.

"I told the City Council on a number of occasions to ask for documentation," he said. "They assured us they had that survey. You would think, in light of our concerns, they would want to make sure it was thoroughly checked out. It was a long, difficult process." Indeed, for such a short span, the work and wrangling over the what is now the Savage Bridge has made it "the longest bridge," with a decade in talking, planning, building, and legal conflicts since it was first flagged as obsolescent in 2006.

The city has also been involved in a legal dispute with contractor Quality Enterprises USA. Work on the bridge, including landscaping, handrails, and the "final lift" or top layer of asphalt for the bridge surface, not scheduled to be installed until after the landscaping is complete. It also includes tying the bridge's sidewalks into walkways that will allow pedestrians to cross under the spans. Trotter and Arceri said the city had promised to let them know when these final items are scheduled, so they can alert the tenants and owners in the Esplanade.

"Now that the settlement is finalized, we are ordering the work," said Hernstadt. "We don't have a final deadline, but it will be shortly."