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Council reverses commission’s application approval

By Staff | Mar 9, 2020

TIFFANY REPECKI Attorney Steve Hartsell, representing applicant and homeowners Christopher and Lisa Heidrick, presents his client’s side before the Sanibel City Council during a quasi-judicial hearing on March 3.

At its recent meeting, the Sanibel City Council voted to reverse a decision by the Sanibel Planning Commission approving variances for an application tied to a new dock with a boat lift and deck spacing requirements, as well as approved some modifications to the city’s new rental registration program.

On March 3, the council voted 4-1 to reverse the commission’s Jan. 28 approval of the variances for a home at 1203 Isabel Drive. Mayor Kevin Ruane, Vice Mayor Mick Denham and Councilmembers Richard Johnson and Holly Smith voted in favor; Councilmember Jason Maughan voted in opposition.

In a quasi-judicial hearing, the council was asked to consider appeals of the commission’s decision filed by attorney Beverly Grady on behalf of some of the neighbors of the applicant residence on Isabel Drive, owned by Christopher and Lisa Heidrick, and the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation.

At the start of the hearing, City Attorney John Agnew explained that no new evidence or testimony would be presented, that council would review the commission’s decision to decide if it had properly interpreted and applied the city Land Development Code. It could then confirm, modify or reverse.

Grady spoke before the council, as did two neighbors, arguing that the variances requested in the application are adverse to the character of the neighborhood and are not in harmony with it. They challenged the commission’s interpretation and application, claiming two standards were not met.

“It is our interpretation, and my interpretation and belief, that the applicant has failed to meet two of those (variance) standards,” neighbor Marty Harrity said, adding that all must be met for approval.

SCCF Chief Executive Officer Ryan Orgera also spoke before the council in opposition to the commission’s decision, focusing on the impact the new dock and pilings would have to the sea grasses. He described the approval as an “egregious departure from the spirit of conservation on Sanibel.”

“Our planning commission landed on the wrong side of this issue,” Orgera said.

Roy Gibson, senior planner and planning supervisor for Sanibel, reported for the council that city staff’s reviews of the application were “extensive.” He noted that prior to the final proposal, which the commission approved, earlier versions did not meet the seven standards.

Gibson added that the final revised plan “satisfied” the required standards, and that staff also recommended several conditions to go with the plan if the commission voted to approve.

Attorney Steve Hartsell, representing the Heidricks, also spoke before the council. He argued against the claims that the application did not meet all seven standards, adding that not all of the neighbors opposed it. Hartsell continued that those in opposition did not have fact or law to support their stance.

Prior to voting, the council members shared their thoughts.

“I personally struggle with standard number seven, which puts me back to number six. Number seven to me is as black and white as it can be,” Ruane said. “Six and seven are not met, in my opinion.”

Denham agreed.

“I’m struggling with six and seven,” he said.

Smith explained that no matter what evidence was presented to support the application satisfying standard number six, installing dock pilings into healthy sea grass is not a “grey area” for her.

“I cannot support giving individual rights over the Sanibel Plan,” she said, adding that she found nothing to support seven, which calls for the minimum amount necessary to mitigate hardships. “For six and seven, it is very clear to me that I will not be able to support the commission’s decision.”

Johnson voiced the same concerns.

“Six and seven – I think that’s where I run into problems with this variance request,” he said. “Given the explanations and testimony given by both parties, I think the planning commission did error.”

“I am inclined to vote in reversal of the planning decision,” Johnson added.

Maughan reported that he thinks the commission properly interpreted and applied the code.

“I do not think it is our duty to undue the planning commission (decision to approve),” he said. “I would vote to support the planning commission in their jurisdiction.”

The majority of council voted in favor of reversing the commission’s approval of the application on the basis that it did not properly interpret and apply the code relating to variance standards six and seven.

RENTAL REGISTRATION PROGRAM

Also at the meeting, the council discussed possible changes to the short-term rental registration program. At the February meeting, concerns were raised about the impact of the registration fee on Community Housing and Resources and other affordable housing, as well as wording on forms.

Smith, who spearheaded the initiative, presented a streamlined application for approval. She also proposed eliminating the fee for CHR units and reducing the fee to $100 for rentals over six months.

A few on council reiterated that they wanted no fee on affordable housing – CHR or not.

“Not just CHR, but lower income housing,” Ruane said, adding that the rental registration program has his support. “I am 100 percent in favor of a registration process. It comes down to the fees applied.”

Johnson voiced his agreement.

“Penalizing somebody who is providing workforce housing is crazy,” he said.

After further discussion, the council agreed to the fee exemption for CHR and it voted 5-0 to amend the registration fee from the reduced $100 to $0 for dwellings rented via lease for more than six months.

After questions from the public, the council also extended the registration deadline to April 30.

IN OTHER NEWS

– Natural Resources Director James Evans provided an update on the Southwest Florida Regional Resiliency Compact. He went over the purpose and objectives of the compact in a presentation for the city council, as well as outlined the history of other regional compacts in the state and the benefits.

Evans reported that a memorandum of understanding has been drafted for consideration.

The council voted 5-0 to have the MOU brought forward for review at its April meeting.

– City council recognized Sanibel Deputy Police Chief Dr. Anthony Thompson for earning his doctorate degree in business administration from the Saint Leo University.

– City council voted 5-0 to appoint F.I.S.H. of Sanibel-Captiva Executive Director Alicia Tighe to the Sanibel Recreation Financial Assistance Committee. She fills a vacancy that is result of the resignation of former committee member and F.I.S.H President Maggie Feiner.