To the editor
The Lee County Board of County Commissioners Zoning Meeting on the St James City Convenience Store is now history. The board also voted for denial of the request, as the staff did and as the hearing examiner did, and effectively ended the project. Of course I am disappointed, but this would not "make or break me" and I will move on to other projects.
I am sure the "opposition" will be claiming a victory for Pine Island against the "developers," but, in fact, this was not a victory against me as a "developer," but a defeat to the people of St. James City that want and need a local C-Store. Today's decision was basically made before today's hearing. In fact, by mistake, I received a copy of the commissioners' resolution to deny, two weeks before the hearing. The "opposition testimony" was merely smoke and wind and was little more than a nuisance and an irritation. The remarks and exhibits of the "opposition" were noted in the hearing examiners report, but those comments, as well as all of my positive comments, had little to do with her findings and conclusions!
I worked with staff for nearly nine months before they issued their report. In that time they told me repeatedly that they were not going to support my rezoning request but they would support the project if I abandoned the rezoning and applied for a Commercial Planned Development (CPD). The difference being the $2,500 fee for rezoning to a considerably higher fee for the CPD. I am not saying this was asking for money for the project but "if it looks like a duck!" The actual denial of the staff support was based on county's assumption that a 30,000-square-foot building could be put on the property which turns out not to be possible. The whole staff case was based on this premise and the fact I would not provide a "traffic study" for this impossible situation. The staff report then went to the hearing examiner.
The hearing officer did hear all of the testimony, but issued a denial of all requested items. This denial was made on the staff report and not based on that testimony. Of the nine items in the hearing examiners findings and conclusions, only one was based on the testimony and that was about the "Eagle Preserve," which was unfounded. One was about the "availability of services to the property," which I still don't understand. The other seven were derived strictly from the staff report. These seven items were all about the county government's inability to "control" what was proposed for or built on the property. I told them it was very clear on the application what I was intending to build and they were not satisfied. They said I could get the zoning and sell the property to someone else and they could build what they wanted. I told them that this was Pine Island not Fort Myers and here we do not back out on our word and they didn't buy that either. I think it is sad that a project like this is turned down, not on its own merits, but for the government's inability to "control" everything.
The Lee County Board of Commissioners is supposed to take the staff report, the hearing examiner's report and the testimony from their own hearing and make an independent decision to accept or deny the request. Again the public testimony was basically ignored and they went with the staff and hearing examiner's reports even though it was established that the staff's primary objection of the 30,000-square-foot building was not possible to build! Directly before the vote was taken Commissioner
Manning indicated that the commissioners were able to make an independent decision contrary to the staff recommendations but stated "they have been in trouble for that in the past" and the vote for denial was unanimous.
I am quite familiar with another project in another town called Oronoco, Minn. Oronoco is smaller that St. James City and they lost their C-Store to a highway project about six years ago. They are waiting yet for final approval on their new C-Store, but it should be completed from land acquisition to building permits in less than six months. I bring this up not to say Minnesota is faster than Florida, but to point out the difference in government. St. James City is not "incorporated" and all decisions are made by Lee County. Pine Island is different from Fort Myers and the rest of the county, but in a good way. Oronoco is incorporated and the government is run as a city. The planning and zoning commissioners and the city council members live in the city and know what the city needs and wants. Lee County can ignore the people of Pine Island without consequence.
Of course, I am disappointed in the outcome. I really felt this was something I could do to help the St. James City community. I was willing to invest nearly a million dollars into a project I knew at best would be "marginally profitable." Now with the additional financial and regulation requirements the project is no longer interesting to me. To the people of St. James City, I am sorry that we will not be getting our gas station and C-Store. I wanted it as a customer, too.
St James Ci