Guest commentary: The elephant in the room

Craig R. Woodward

I am starting my 51st year as a resident of Marco Island and have seen more changes on this Island than most residents can appreciate. I believe that the "awards" and publicity in magazines and in social media regarding our having a beautiful beach or being one of the top island destinations has raised the national and international awareness of our Island and resulted in a slew of traffic and crowded restaurants especially during season. 

Craig Woodward

Behind my office, for example, there is a popular farmer’s market on Wednesday mornings. Although to some it may be a local inconvenience for traffic and parking near Bald Eagle Drive, it is a nice amenity for many people.

Clearly many people, both fulltime and seasonal residents, believe that we have reached the "tipping point" and don’t want any more cars or people on the Island, as everyone remembers what Marco was like when they arrived: aka the "good old days."  The answer, many say, is to stop any more growth and some see the first solution to be blocking the assisted living facility (ALF) proposed for the corner of San Marco Road and S. Heathwood. I don’t see that as solving any of our problems except denying our elderly a place to age in place and socialize.

My mother in her 80s had to drive daily to North Naples to see my father in an ALF; later I had to drive to North Naples to visit my mother. I remember when Bentley Village was known as "Marco North" –many of these residents were my clients and they did not want to leave their Island but had no alternative. It comes down to a quality of life issue. An assisted living facility is one of the most passive uses there is, very few cars, eating facilities on site, and it provides residents with the ability to live on an island they love and remain as members of their churches, and continue their social life.

Frustration can result in an overwhelming reaction to yell stop to all growth, but what we need is a closer examination of growth and what is acceptable and what is not. After all, what is achieved by not letting our elderly live the rest of their days on Marco? The satisfaction that something is being done to stop growth?  That is a fleeting feeling, why? Because of what I call the elephant in the room – we are so focused on what is happening here on the island that we fail to see over the bridge. Collier County is scheduled to literally double in population and that growth is in the northeast, up the SR 951 corridor and to the east of it along the planned Benfield Road (if you have not heard of it you don’t understand what is happening). This growth is in large, planned communities that are well financed, and whose residents will obtain access to the beaches and the waterways of Southwest Florida either west through densely populated Naples or easier straight south to Marco. Why do you think that the county designed the interchange at U.S. 41 for a north south overpass? It was certainly not needed to meet Islander's needs. Marco's real future is day trippers from these inland communities.  

What is being done to manage or plan by Marco and other coastal communities for the daily onslaught of them? Nothing. When I inquired of our elected officials, I am told the city won't build excess parking, ignoring that the day trippers are as likely to take a parking spot at Marco's waterfront restaurants, marinas or beaches otherwise available to our residents. A start would be a coalition of the coastal towns to fully understand and deal with the county on these issues.

I took on representation of the new Marco ALF because my wife and I wanted elderly residents, like her parents (99 and 94-year-old long-time Marco residents), who refused to leave the Island they had resided on for decades, to be able to continue to live in the place that was such a big part of their lives.  Unfortunately, my in-laws passed away last year and while they had excellent in-home care, they had little social life and would have been better off in an ALF, as my parents had been. 

The proposed Marco ALF building has been modified to fit into the neighborhood, the fourth floor was removed, and its height is limited to 37 feet, two feet higher than the neighboring condo to the north, the buffer to the north has been doubled and a waterfront walkway and small park added open to the public. The funds from the sale of this property are required to be used by NCH to build a new Urgent Care facility replacing the outdated early 1980s building.  There is no violation of the comprehensive plan – the plan allows density in this area, that is how the condo project to the north got rezoned from commercial to multi-family years ago. 

The key to growth is to be sure that growth is utilized to meet the needs of our residents, whether it be for young families with children, with both a middle school and high school on the island, or for our elderly.  It is a project that has been long in coming and is well needed.