Marco Island council candidates open door to assisted living facility during forum
Marco Island City Council candidates said Wednesday in an election forum that they would consider allowing the construction of an assisted living facility on the island.
An earlier version of the project was voted down by City Council last year as some councilors said it was too big for the corner of San Marco Road and Heathwood Drive, where the NCH healthcare center is located.
The new proposal reduces the acres to be developed from 12 to 10 and reduces the units from 143 to 86, eliminating all independent living units, according to the project's website, marcoislandcares.com. Of the 10 acres, about half would be retained by NCH to replace its existing building, three would be dedicated to the assisted living facility and two for a park to be donated to the city.
The Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce, Marco Island Area Association of Realtors and Marco Island Civic Association organized Wednesday's forum.
Early in-person voting at the polls begins Oct. 19 and ends Oct. 31. Election Day is Nov. 3.
Five candidates — incumbent Vice Chairman Jared Grifoni and candidates Richard Blonna, Joseph Rola, Becky Irwin and Phares Heindl — are running for four council seats. The top four vote-getters win.
At the forum, a moderator asked the candidates if they would vote in favor of allowing an assisted living facility on the island and where.
Grifoni, who is the only candidate running for reelection, said he would consider voting for the project if it meets the requirements of the city's land development code, which establishes the standards for reviewing and approving all proposed property development.
Grifoni also said the project must "clearly meet a reasonable need on Marco Island as a community that has a lot of elderly residents."
"We have a legal duty to give every project that comes in front of us the opportunity to present their case," he said.
Grifoni said an assisted living facility would allow elderly residents to stay on Marco and be close to their loved ones.
Last year Grifoni voted against the original proposal with Chairman Erik Brechnitz and councilors Howard Reed, Sam Young, Charlette Roman and Victor Rios, according to the minutes of the meeting. Councilor Larry Honig voted in favor.
Blonna said he has attended two public workshops organized by the developer and that the original proposal had deficiencies.
"The new proposal that they are presenting on the same site really corrects all of those deficiencies as well as issues that residents brought up such as traffic, noise, density," he said.
Blonna said he would make a decision after receiving feedback from city staff and the planning board.
Rola, a planning board member, said the demographics on the island support having an assisted living facility on the island or close by.
Rola said he would encourage a facility of a "proper size" located in an area that "concurs" with the city's comprehensive plan, which offers guidance to the city in terms of development, facilities, infrastructure and conservation.
"The demographics support an ALF (assisted living facility) on the island; the question is how big," he said. "I would personally prefer to start small and grow into something bigger if we have to."
Irwin, a member of the beautification board, said the new proposal should be considered if it "fills a need in the community." She said her dad lives by himself on the island and would benefit from a new health facility.
"There are also a lot of people here who don't have kids to help them," she said. "It is very important to have a skilled facility here to take care of our neighbors."
Heindl, a former waterways committee member, said it is best when the elderly are in their homes with their families. He said he would like to see the city work with an elderly care program "to keep people in their homes."
"We need to think about those people that can't afford the thousands and thousands of dollars in the assisted living facility," he said.
The project's next step is a hearing before the planning board but a date had not been determined as of Wednesday, said Daniel Smith, director of community affairs.
Candidates were also asked questions about short-term rentals, water quality, protection of threatened species, code enforcement, permanent license plate readers and Amendment 2, which would raise Florida's minimum wage from $8.56 per hour to $10 per hour starting on Sept. 30 of next year.
The minimum wage would increase $1 per hour each following year until it reaches $15 per hour in 2026. Standard cost of living increases would resume in 2027, Florida Today reported.
Four of five candidates said they are against raising the minimum wage next year but only Rola said it should eventually happen under better economic circumstances. Heindl declined to answer the question, arguing the forum should only include "local issues."
Blonna, Rola and Irwin said they support the $60,000 permanent license plate readers proposed by Marco Island Police Department on the city's bridges, while Grifoni said he has concerns about privacy and the amount of money the city would have to spend if faced with a lawsuit like the city of Coral Gables.
Heindl spoke about safety but did not answer the question.
In June, the organization suing Coral Gables wrote a letter to Marco Police Chief Tracy L. Frazzano and other city officials urging them to "reconsider putting in license plate readers and stated a lawsuit could be forthcoming if its position didn’t change," the Naples Daily News reported.