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County to review development guidelines for Pine Island

Residents pack commission chambers for discussion

March 25, 2015
By MEGHAN McCOY ( , Pine Island Eagle

Lee County will continue its review of density guidelines for development on Pine Island.

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners unanimously agreed during a lengthy meeting last Tuesday that county staff, outside legal counsel and expert consultants will review the existing Pine Island Plan. The vote also included the involvement of two residents that live on Pine Island, who have had a hand in drafting the original plan.

Those islanders will be Greg Stewart and Bill Spikowski, according to the recommendation made by Commissioner John Manning, who was voted to become the liaison for the Pine Island community during the process.

County Attorney Richard Wesch said the two residents will provide assistance in striking a balance between lessening liability to the county from property owner challenges while maintaining the character of Pine Island.

"They are expert planners in their field," he said, adding that they will provide assistance in the rewriting process.

The Pine Island Plan is under review because of litigation Lee County is facing.

Wesch said there are eight cases against Lee County plus 51 notices from other property owners who have issues with plan parameters.

He said the intent is to authorize those elements of the Pine Island Plan that have created a liability and future liability for all of Lee County, all while safeguarding the character and nature of the Pine Island community.

"This is the formal action required to allow us to start that process," Wesch said. "Any amendments that are proposed will go through a full hearing process."

Commissioner Frank Mann said he is troubled because he does not feel they have exhausted everything they could be doing in terms of legal defense in a courtroom.

"I feel like we could have done more," he said. "No one knows how far we have to go to downsize and soften the plan. I would like to spend more time in a courtroom defending the existing plan. I want us to explore every option. We are on the cutting edge of some legal history here and I don't want to throw in the towel by rewriting a plan and softening a plan that has been really good."

Mitch Hutchcraft spoke on behalf of King Ranch, an agricultural company that has a 162-legacy during the meeting. He said although they were not there to debate the vision, they believe the Pine Island Plan went too far.

"Is there a better way? A more equitable solution?" Hutchcraft asked. "King Ranch has not filed any lawsuits, notices of content. We have clearly indicated our current agricultural plans. We are ready to collaborate with Lee County and put new policies in place . . . restore the rights that were taken out of this plan."

Manning told the crowd that they will meet in their neighborhood, as well as share what they know and come up with. He said they also will get input from the Pine Island community.

"I was involved in the first Pine Island Plan," Manning said. "It is a unique place for folks to live, work and play, and we are going to keep it that way."

The Lee County Board of County Commission chambers filled with approximately 300 Pine Islanders, many of whom spoke during the very lengthy public comment portion of the meeting.

Many of the residents shared how they enjoy the unique, quaint characteristics of the island, which is why they do not want to see increased development.

Sonny Koutsoutis, a resident of St. James City, said due to the many commercial areas around, they don't need another one.

"Why would you feel that you got to destroy the unique aspect of Pine Island?" she said. "There is a limited amount of land. As a citizen, resident of Pine Island, a voter and a landowner, I am asking why? I think I am entitled to know why it is you want to destroy Pine Island."

Many community members also spoke passionately about how large developments on Pine Island would impact the traffic, therefore impacting the evacuation during hurricanes.

The Pine Island plan includes the "810 rule" and "910 rules" which restricted future development.

Kathy Malone, vice president of the Greater Pine Island Civic Association, said they love their island, but they do not want to be trapped there in a disaster.

Manning said he has made the pledge to a number of folks on an individual basis that they are going to watch this process very closely.

After the public comment came to a close, Commissioner Larry Kiker thanked everyone for coming to the meeting. He said he learned that the topic is very personal to those who spoke.

Kiker said as they move forward he would like there to be conversations about the evacuation standards that are required, what is minimally acceptable and what that means in terms to what is written in the Pine Island Plan. He said he would also like a comparison of that information to the 810 rule and the 910 rule.

He added he would also like the infrastructure plans for Matlacha and Pine Island to be reviewed for the next five, 10 and 20 years. He would like an analysis of how that plays into funding that has been identified so far in connection with Kings Ranch and some of the other possible land owner projects that they have.

"I would like to see a timeline," Kiker said of all the major purchases mapped out in terms of when the Pine Island Plan came into being.

A comparative analysis of the 20/20 funds that are available was also requested by Kiker. A specific legal liability estimate was another request, so everyone is talking about the same numbers.

A prioritized list from the Pine Island community of what they would like to see the County Commissioners talking about was also requested by Kiker.

"If we are going to do this, let's do it right," he said. "Let's do an analysis. I hear you loud and clear and I know we have a lot of work to do. We have to have some patience."

Wesch said given the list of requests, he anticipates the commissioners would not have any information much before 60 days at the earliest. He said it will take some time to prepare a proposed draft for discussion.

Mann said the meeting was not to dismantle the Pine Island Plan, nor finding ways to increase the density of Pine Island.

"We are here because we have been sued over the Pine Island Plan, just a component of it," he said. "We were sued and we lost that suit."

Mann went on to say that they would like to protect the intent of the Pine Island Plan as it exists today.

"If we don't make some adjustments to the Pine Island Plan, we could, they have said this on the record, we could possibly if the sky did fall, we could be liable for as much as $2 million. We must find a legal strategy," he said.



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