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City planners OK Doc Ford’s conditional use permit

By Staff | Apr 29, 2015

The city’s Planning Commission has approved permits allowing the Doc Ford’s restaurant in Sanibel to relocate a couple of miles east. Final paperwork should be on the planning commission’s May 12 agenda.

But the April 28 permitting approval process involved plenty of islanders, some loud, some in silent protest, some in support, some to observe the spectacle at a jammed MacKenzie Hall. Planning commissioners were to decide conditional use permits for the Doc Ford’s chain required for restaurants in Sanibel. Owners want to build a new store at Tarpon Bay and Periwinkle. Overflows at the public hearing prompted extra seating, a staffer finger counting the room to ensure fire safety rules. Others stood or sat outside the hall. The last such public involvement was for causeway construction, islanders at the event said.

Conditional permits screen chain or formula restaurants from building in the island. The original Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille was founded in Sanibel. Others are in Fort Myers Beach and Captiva.

For nearly seven hours, islanders hiked to the public lectern, some voicing fears of traffic gridlock and lost wildlife habitat, others supporting Doc Ford’s move from Rabbit Road. Many apologized for opposing the project, having been regulars at the popular eatery. Some made repeated statements, as time restrictions limited comments to three minutes. The event was like a carousel, with commission chair Phil Marks admonishing those crossing the line into personal attacks.

Still, intolerable traffic formed the bulk of complaints. Neighbors also said that noise and smells from a busy restaurant would hurt property values.

Tarpon Bay and Periwinkle where the new store would locate this last season was regularly jammed morning through late evening. Causeway traffic jumped nearly 3 percent over last year, and resort/retail owners reported record sales. The new location would be at a 2.4-acre parcel across from the Bailey’s shopping complex.

Owner representatives at the public hearing argued Doc Ford’s is busiest in the evening, when traffic lightens.

Many weren’t buying any of the arguments in favor. New retail at the busy intersection “will inevitably increase noise, smell, trash,” islander Roxanne Olevsky told commissioners. “How can it not impact” the area?

Some in extreme opposition wore black clothing in silent protest. The restaurant’s popular co-owner, Marty Harrity, listened in silence as islanders voiced opinions at the lectern next to the table at which he sat before commissioners. Only after the commission’s unanimous vote to grant two conditional use permits did Harrity allow thoughts, saying only that “the system works.” He was hugged and congratulated by a contingent of friends and staff in attendance. Co-owner Mark Marinello was elated, as well.

But some in opposition vowed to continue protesting, even threatening legal action using social media to fund a campaign.

“Not in my wildest nightmares did I expect this city would allow yet another restaurant at the (Tarpon/Periwinkle) intersection,” said Molly Heuer, whose husband demonstrated his displeasure with the project on social media. “I was positive the planning commission, after sufficiently reviewing the applicant’s plans, would arrive at a more positive conclusion, not rubber-stamping it.”

The seven commissioners voiced empathy for those in opposition, but reinforced the notion that their role was to follow codes and protocol, in this case the standards for a conditional use permit. City Planner James Jordan laid out the Doc Ford’s permitting process in the time preceding the public hearing.

“We base our decision on those facts,” Commissioner Holly Smith said in concluding remarks.

Not everyone, of course, was upset with the proposed restaurant. A number braved the mood of the hearing, voicing support. Many were quick to note that Doc Ford’s ownership is especially generous, supporting charities and other causes. Doc Ford’s in May is sponsoring a tarpon tournament attracting world anglers to benefit the island’s popular wildlife refuge, for instance. And Harrity also quietly leads efforts to fund a children’s hospital and medical equipment, and has coached for many years, supporters said. Island realtor Toby Tolp told commissioners that quality dining choices in Sanibel top the list of reasons clients locate in the islands.

Ultimately, however, the decision in favor of the conditional use permit came down to legal formulas.

“And (you) cannot change these things in the middle of a hearing,” Planning Commission chair Phil Marks said.