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Past promises, current challenges: Pre-platted communities have common development issues

By Staff | Oct 15, 2011

Early literature from the Gulf American Land Corporation promised a self-sufficient subtropical city in Cape Coral, one that had larger goals beyond its residential roots, including a business district, heavy industrial area, and water and sewer plants.

It was supposed to be the first phase of plans for an expected population of 25,000 by 1970, and, by all accounts, Gulf American sold the city as a place where youngsters might come of age and one day “live and work when they become adults.”

The promise of a future beyond the land deal was part of the pitch and, along with the hundreds of miles of canals being dug and the hundreds of thousands of lots divvied up across the peninsula, the Rosen Brothers and their sales people had a formidable approach that lured many.

But slicing miles of land into 80- by 120-foot parcels created long-term problems the Rosen Brothers either never imagined or wholly ignored. Now, just decades from the Cape’s first leap into cityhood, its still trying to figure out how to overcome a lack of enough large tracts to become a viable, thriving municipality offering a balance of residential and commercial growth.

Still, no one quite knows how to get there after all these years and Cape Coral, with a 92 percent residential tax base, is struggling to redefine itself.

The city is not alone in the regard – Lehigh Acres faces the same hurdles on the other side of the river and Charlotte County is looking down the same barrel to the north.

Everyone knows what they want to do, they just don’t know how to do it.

“They were very good bad examples,” said Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann of both the Cape and Lehigh. “Back then, this was very cheap land.”

Mann was one of as number of local officials, legislators, planners and residents who took part in “Plat-a-palooza” on Friday, an event aimed at finding some answers to the pre-platted community conundrum.

A life-long Lee County resident, Mann said his father once owned land in what would become Cape Coral, which he sold to the Gulf American Corporation.

As a young married couple, Mann and his wife toured the burgeoning 100-square-mile development as potential buyers and witnessed the “slick scheme” the Gulf American sales people used to get people to sign on the dotted line for only $10 down and $10 a month.

Mann acknowledged that the current task of solving the pre-platted issue is “enormous,” but said that the county is trying to battle sprawl in Lehigh Acres by encouraging development where infrastructure exists.

A tiered system of road repairs will hopefully keep people centrally located, Mann said. And while the commissioner added that people are free to build where they choose, the tiered system for road repairs could rein in some looking to build in Lee’s eastern extremes.

“We got sprawl thrust on us, now how do we deal with it? We’re discouraging development in some parts of Lehigh,” Mann said.

If pre-platted land, and the resulting lack of large parcels, is one of the biggest obstacles the Cape has to overcome to diversify its tax base, then new Economic Development Director Dana Brunett has his work cut out for him.

Brunett was using the Plat-a-palooza event as an opportunity to get up to speed, he said, despite not officially starting his new city job until Monday.

Brunett said it is important to overcome the pre-platted issues in order to lure a big time employer to the city, but he also, for the moment, will be focused on small businesses.

Limited transportation is a problem the Cape likely won’t solve even if it overcomes the issues associated with pre-platting, Brunett said.

With no magic wand to wave, Brunett said it is going to be important to find the right fit for Cape Coral.

“We need to bring in the right kind of business because industrial is not going to fly,” he said. “We need to make sure where we’re going is the proper direction.”

Chamber of Commerce of Cape Coral President Mike Quaintance said the chamber, as part of the Lee County Days contingent, has lobbied on the state level for the last six years for help in solving the various issues preplatted communities face.

He finally feels they’re getting some traction from these annual trips to Tallahassee.

But if the squeaky wheel gets the grease, then the wheel needs to keep squeaking louder, according to Quaintance.

“There’s still more work to do,” he added. “By banding communities together and creating a synergy, we might be able to cause more impact and changes on the state level.”

Former Charlotte County Commissioner Adam Cummings said portions of that county are facing similar, if not more dire, circumstances than the Cape and Lee.

A 16-year commissioner, Cummings said a balance needs to be struck between growth management and job creation, as legislators need to be careful not to cede too much control for the sake of economic development.

“In the midst of this rush to job creation, it important not to lose sight of how we got here,” Cummings said. “We need to steer the conversation back toward identifying steps we can take to help improve the communities suffering from this problem.”

Cummings was among those who took part in Plat-a-palooza on Friday.

Making sure state legislators understand the problems in southwest Florida is paramount, he added, in order to educate them on ridding the region of barriers to solving the problems.

“It’s going to require a state legislature with far more leadership than I’m seeing now,” Cummings said.

The dismantling of the Department of Community Affairs by Gov. Rick Scott has both its supporters and detractors.

Some feel that one less layer of government is a plus for communities like Cape Coral, while others feel that the DCA offered cities and counties to make tough decisions while having a scapegoat.

District 73 Rep. Matt Caldwell said that 90 percent of all cases coming through DCA did so without comment, and it made sense that decisions were made locally, instead.

Rep. Gary Aubuchon, of Cape Coral, agreed.

“The decisions now are better made at the local level … we don’t want state solutions imposed locally,” he said.

Paul Sanborn was one of the original salesman for the Gulf American Corporation. Now a keeper of the city’s history, Sanborn looks back on those days as whirlwind of sales activity.

“It’s easy to second guess they should have done this or that, but at the time, the concentration was providing for people who wanted a different lifestyle for their future,” Sanborn said. “Perhaps there wasn’t enough planning, but the demand was so great it was all they concentrated on.”

Sanborn served as the Industrial Development director for GAC, and was instrumental in establishing the city’s first industrial park.

That has since become successful but the city is still searching for more commercial opportunities.

Sanborn said it was obvious the city would need the industrial park but beyond that, not much consideration was given to future commercial and industrial needs.

“We’ve learned a lot that could have and should have been done,” he said.