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Aubuchon promises support for important Sanibel issues

By Staff | Dec 3, 2008

It’s all about the water.

It’s the water that attracts the tourists, who fill the hotels and make purchases at local businesses, which pay the taxes, which finance government, which has a responsibility to keep that water — and the beaches — as clean as possible.

That’s the message City Council delivered to State Representative Gary Aubuchon (R-Dist. 74) Tuesday when he made an appearance at the Council’s regular meeting – and it’s a message Council asked Aubuchon to support and defend when he returns to Tallahassee in preparation for the upcoming legislative session.

Councilman Marty Harrity summed up the Council’s collective feelings on the importance of water issues when he quoted a former Fort Myers Beach town manager, who said, “[Tourists] aren’t coming here for Edison Mall, they’re coming here for the beaches.”

Aubuchon, who was invited to attend the meeting as part of Council’s preparation for the Lee County Legislative Delegation Meeting and Public Hearing next month, began his visit with a brief update on the current status of the state’s legislative bodies, and a recap of last year’s legislative session.

Last year’s session held particular attention and regret for Sanibel’s residents and public officials when the Healthy Beaches initiative, which sought to expand Department of Health water testing to include pollution source tracking and enforcement measures, failed in the State Senate after successfully passing through the House.

Mayor Mick Denham told Aubuchon that the City of Sanibel was asking for his support on resurrecting the Healthy Beaches initiative, while doing what he could to prevent the passage of any state legislation that would pre-empt existing local ordinances regarding fertilizer uses.

“I fear that the fertilizer preemption will rear its ugly head again,” said Denham, referring to legislation which also failed in last year’s legislative session. “And I believe that would not be in the best interest of this community. [State legislation] should not interfere with local ordinances that are already in place.”

Citing a strong lobby in defense of fertilizer uses, Denham offered evidence of positive results from actual fertilizer use limitations.

“Sarasota Bay has such an ordinance and they have halved their pollution in the past several years,” said Denham. “There was a significant improvement in water quality. We need to stay on that track.”

Aubuchon urged the Council to stay in close contact with lobbyists who promote clean water initiatives.

“In the world of newspapers, ‘lobbyist’ is a bad term,” said Aubuchon. “But in the real world, they can help promote your message. This lobbyist needs to focus on the Senate side of things.”

Denham took the opportunity of Aubuchon’s visit to ask about the level of energy the City was dedicating to promoting its issues.

“Do we as a body plug enough energy into lobbying in Tallahassee?” asked Denham. “Have we got it right? Are we too aggressive? Not aggressive enough? Is it about right? What would be your advice?”

Aubuchon congratulated Denham for the question and told the Council that they clearly hit a grand slam in the last legislative session with the squashing of a fertilizer ordinance that contained preemptive language.

“You brought all the runners home,” said Aubuchon. “The key to lobbying is not so much that it come from [the Council] itself, but from your lobbyist working the Senate at your request. He needs to be able to identify potential problems early enough so that we can do something at that time. Make sure your lobbyist is engaged on the Senate side.”

While issues concerning water cleanliness and quality are of the utmost importance to the local economy — which is driven by tourism and depends on clean and healthy beaches for survival — the Council recognized the existence of other issues affecting the economy and asked Aubuchon for his point of view on those issues.

“We need to change the message,” said Aubuchon, who claimed a special insight into the local economy from his position in the real estate industry. “We see people on vacation considering moving here, as well as citizens who are departing,” he said. “So, why are they leaving?”

Aubuchon said that the housing boom of the past several years systematically eliminated baby boomers from the local housing market in 2005 and 2006.

“With the median price of homes at $321,000 back then, many if not most baby boomers were priced right out of the market,” said Aubuchon. “What we need now is a baby-boomer do-over. With median home prices in Lee County now at $140,000, those baby-boomers have the chance to retire once again. Our new message has to be that there is now a whole new chance for you to call Lee County home.”

The Council has invited State Senator Garrett Richter (R-Dist. 37) to address the Council at its next meeting on Dec. 16, and every Council member will be meeting personally with state legislators whenever it is possible to deliver Sanibel’s message to the Southwest Florida state legislative delegation.

The Lee County Legislative Meeting and Public Hearing will take place on Jan. 27 at Edison College in Fort Myers from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.