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Council discusses moving palms for sidewalks

By Staff | Aug 26, 2015

City sidewalks and palm trees planted in the right-of-way don’t mix.

The subject, not on the agenda, came up at Monday’s City Council meeting at City Hall as one resident complained at the podium during public comment time.

Residents along Sands Boule-vard who knowingly and willingly planted palms in the city right-of-way in front of their homes now object to the city informing them that they must relocate or remove them at their own expense for sidewalk construction.

“The city currently allows residents to plant in the right-of-way with the knowledge that they must remove them in the case of a road widening, utility or sidewalk project needs to be placed in the right-of-way,” said City Manager John Szerlag.

Reportedly, more than 70 palm trees on 34 improved properties along Sands are at the source of the issue. Szerlag offered a couple of solutions, but some on council asked that those be put on hold until next week’s council meeting so more of the affected residents can speak out.

“It could cost as much as $1,000 per tree to remove or relocate them,” Szerlag said.

His solution proposals included bending the sidewalk around the palms onto the private residences with an additional easement agreement for $1, or the city could bear the cost of relocation/removal and issue the parties a special assessment to be repaid to the city, for example, over a 10-year period.

“They (sidewalks) are going in as far as this councilman is concerned,” said Derrick Donnell. “The idea of getting free money from the state for sidewalks, I mean come on. We need to look at all options, but it’s happening.”

The city has open agreements with the Florida Department of Transportation to pay for the construction of sidewalks in several areas throughout the city.

Councilmember Rana Erbrick cautioned her fellow members about opening up a can of worms by deviating from the easement regulations.

“This time it’s palm trees,”” said Erbrick. “Where does it end? Next it will be alleyway improvements here, utilities there. This opens up a much larger issue than just these 34 residents.”

Councilmember John Carioscia countered, “I think the city should look at all its options when it can. We need to make sure the city does all it can for the residents. Each case is unique.”

All members were on board with further discussion next week.

Other council business

In other business, the city followed through with setting the annual rates for the fire service assessment, vacant lot mowing, stormwater and garbage disposal services for the next fiscal year.

At recent meetings, council set those rates at not-to-exceed figures and verified those rates Monday night. The lot mowing and garbage disposal services will see no change for FY 2016. Stormwater rates will see a $5 per property increase from $75 to $80 for 2016, the first increase in that rate since 2006.

Stormwater rates will increase each of the next five years, according to the city’s master plan, to keep the fund solvent and continue the current level of service. The rate will be $87 for 2017 and peak at $119 for 2020. Public Works Director Steve Neff explained that the increases are necessary to meet the city’s expected population growth and demands on the system as it begins to age.

Lot mowing actually decreases in all four city districts by just a few cents while the garbage rate will be kept at $163.43 per property despite an increase in the disposal rate issued by Lee County. The city decided to use reserve funds to offset the increase in favor of keeping the rate the same for residents.

Lee County’s increase raised Council-member Jim Burch’s temper a notch, saying he thought the county was trying to get Cape residents to subsidize waste disposal throughout the county. He charged the county with making poor financial decisions by lowering the rate during the economic recession for political reasons and now city residents must “pay the piper” with higher rates.

Burch cast the lone dissenting vote in a 7-1 approval of the garbage rate.

The fire assessment rate was approved at $112.79 for Tier 1 and $2.32 for Tier 2. The Tier 1 rate will be paid by all property owners, vacant or improved, and Tier 2 is added per Equivalent Benefit Unit (EBU) based on the value of the structure.

Council approved the proposed vehicle-for-hire businesses Monday night by a 7-1 vote with Burch again casting the dissenting vote.

Burch cautioned that the state Legislature is taking up six different ride-sharing bills in January. If the city abandoned its ordinance now, it would be in jeopardy of losing grandfather status and, consequently, home rule authority on the matter.

Council passed an ordinance that mirrored one recently adopted by Lee County to remove multiple licensing and insurance compliance differences between the city and county. The county ordinance also regulates the Uber ride-sharing service the same as other taxi and limo services.

“It will be a hot button item,” said Burch. “The city has nothing to gain by not waiting to see what happens in the Legislature. I’m not opposed to this ordinance, but I am opposed to doing this right now.”

Community Development Director Vince Cautero recommended the city pass the ordinance as written and wait until the county incorporates a rate fee schedule in its ordinance before acting on it. The city then could amend its version with the same rate fee schedule at a later date.

Council meets again next Monday in Council Chambers at City Hall.