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Hearing for Eden Oak postponed until September

By Staff | May 18, 2018

JESSICA SALMOND Around 100 people showed up today for the Hearing Examiner's reading of the Eden Oak project, making it standing-room only in the main room and overflowing into a separate room.

A developer on Shell Point Boulevard was granted a continuance request today after receiving a negative staff review.

Laura Belflower, a Lee County Hearing Examiner, agreed to continue the hearing for the Eden Oak rezoning request until Sept. 25. At the original hearing scheduled for today, the developer asked for the delay to be able to meet with county staff again.

“There are a lot of outstanding issues to be resolved,” Robert Pritt, an attorney for Eden Oak I, said.

Eden Oak is a 2016 rezoning request for 307 acres on Shell Point Boulevard between the Shell Point Retirement Community and the Palm Acres neighborhood. Eden Oak I, the applicant, seeks to construct 55 single-family homes on about 45 acres of land, rezoning the mangrove habitat from agricultural to residential. The LLC is registered to Romas Kartavicius of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. According to his LinkedIn profile, Kartavicius is also president of Eden Oak, a home building firm that has been in business for more than 30 years in Toronto.

More than 100 people attended today’s hearing, but did not get the chance to speak publicly. A majority of them were Palm Acres residents, and others, in opposition to the project. Their public comment forms were collected for the public record, however.

Representatives from the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida also attended the meeting.

Lee County staff released a report two weeks ago stating that they did not recommend approval of the rezoning request – a surprise to the applicant.

“We were expecting a more positive staff report, so we need to find out why,” Pritt said.

In the 135-page report, staff reported that the request was “inconsistent with the Goals, Objectives, and Policies related to the protection and enhancement of wetlands, the protection of wildlife habitat, the protection of life and property, the limitation of public expenditures within Coastal High Hazard Areas, and development within coastal planning areas established by the Lee Plan. The request, if approved, will adversely affect environmentally critical and environmentally sensitive areas and natural resources, and presents compatibility-related concerns to adjacent uses as a result of these adverse environmental impacts.”

The report also states that the developer would also only be allowed 32 homes based on the property’s future land use designations, which are 2.75 acres of suburban and 303.25 acres of wetland.

The applicant claims that previous disturbances of the site created enough “upland” area to allow for residential development – but Rae Ann Wessel of the SCCF disagrees. Some of the claimed land is spoil piles from mosquito trenches dug in the 1950s; another area Wessel said was illegally cleared in 1984 but was partially restored later by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“This is such a bad idea,” she said in a previous story. “You bought it as agricultural zoned critical wetlands. What gave you the idea you were entitled for a rezoning?”

Wessel, who authored a letter of opposition on behalf of SCCF, is also concerned with the threat of a new development in a Coastal High Hazard Zone – the new homes could be under threat for sea level rise, storm surge and road-clogging in a mass evacuation event.

Staff agreed in the report that the request is inconsistent with the county’s policies in regards to wetland preservation in the high hazard zone. It reads: “Mangroves and saltwater marsh wetlands act as the first line of defense during storm events by dissipating wave energy and providing retention of water during periods of storm surge. Impacting this area will make private property and public infrastructure in the surrounding area more vulnerable to the effects of storm events.”

The report notes that part of the property proposed for development has been recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Digital Mapping Pilot Project to be included in the Coastal Barrier Resources System.

In all, staff found the project to be inconsistent with 12 goals and policies of the Lee Plan – or “substantially inconsistent.”

“Regardless of the density proposed by the request, the request is inconsistent with Lee Plan Goals, Objectives and Policies intended to limit density within the Coastal High Hazard Area, to protect and enhance the ecological character of wetlands and coastal areas, to protect life and property from the hazards of natural disasters, to limit public expenditure in areas of the County most vulnerable to the effects of storms, hurricanes, and flooding, to protect the habitat of threatened and endangered species and species of special concern, and to maintain and enhance native habitat, floral and faunal species diversity, fresh and estuarine water quality, and natural surface water characteristics,” the conclusion reads.

Now, the developer’s team and the county staff will try to work through that substantial inconsistency. Pritt said the team will meet with the county. He maintained that some of the property was “previously disturbed” and that his client had the right to reasonable use of his property.

“Some organizations are against anything, any building by the water,” Pritt said. “A lot of people here were already living on the land, and now they’re all about conservation now that they have their land.”

He said the development team is considering having a meeting with the neighborhood to talk about the project.

“It’s good to have communication,” he said.

But many local neighbors have already attended their own public meeting. SCCF and Palm Acres residents organized a meeting May 7 in advance of today’s hearing to get the community on alert about the development.

Mary Tracy Sigman, a Palm Acres resident, helped get the word out about the meeting. They were expecting between 30 and 50 attendees and were taken by surprise when double that showed up, she said.

Word had spread on Sanibel and at the Shell Point Retirement Community.

“It isn’t a personal back-yard opposition,” Sigman said. “Everybody realizes it’s a group environmental issue.”

She said comparing the development to developing her neighborhood is using an out-dated code. Palm Acres was developed in the 1960s and 1970s – before restrictions on wetlands, mangroves and coastal zones were established. The hearing drew residents from Sigman’s community, as well as carpoolers from Shell Point and the island. Sigman said the turnout was fabulous.

Before the meeting, word had gotten out the developer was going to ask for a continuance, so Sigman and others worked hard to remind people they still needed to attend the meeting.

“Until he asked in person, it’s not official, and if we don’t show up and make our stand, he could go ahead with it,” she said.

She hopes to be able to rally even more people for the September meeting, but she is not sure how the developer will be able to reconcile his application with the staff report.

“You can’t build on something that will get flooded, or take out the barriers that protect the property already there from getting flooded. But crazier things have gotten approved, that’s why we’re concerned,” she said. “The county commissioners are not bound to accept the report, or any of it, it’s on what they choose to grant or not. We have to keep up the fight.”