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Is San Carlos Island ripe for redevelopment?

January 31, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

An old local favorite, The Fish Monger, is on its way to a new life.

Local developer Joe Orlandini is under a land contract for the property at 19030 San Carlos Boulevard with Nick Ruland.

Ruland and his wife, Mary, have owned the restaurant since 1989. In 2014, the Ruland kept the property but turned over the restaurant to a new manager, but the restaurant eventually closed.

Article Photos

Joe Orlandini shared a rendering of how he hopes to refresh the old Fish Monger restaurant's exterior, opening up the restaurant with more windows.

Orlandini said he's trying to get the restaurant open as soon as possible, but is waiting for permits and had to fix the roof that was damaged during the hurricane.

Once it opens, which Orlandini hopes will be in several weeks, it will be called MoJoe's Reef Bar & Grill.

"We're going to change the name and refresh the inside," Orlandini said.

But the next phase for the restaurant is to revamp the outside with a new, fresh Key-West style facade.

A new look for the old establishment will be a step in the right direction for San Carlos Boulevard.

But San Carlos Island could be on the brink of a new wave of refreshments.

Developer Jack Mayher thinks that his project will be the catalyst for revitalization on the two miles that creates San Carlos Island.

His Bay Harbour Marina Village project has been in the works for, technically, more than a decade.

It began before the economy tanked in the Great Recession; before, Mayher had planned on a full-service marina and what he called a "boatiminium," where people would buy, rather than rent, a boat slip to store their boats.

After the recession, Mayher bought back his property from the bank and came up with a new plan.

"There was no market for what we were planning," he said, especially for the bought slips. "That's dried up."

Although there are several marinas in the area which have been built or expanded since the recession, they only offer for-rent slips.

Instead, Mayher had a new idea: a multi-use development that would encompass residential, commercial and marine uses.

His new idea went into the Lee County pipeline in 2015, when he applied for both a comprehensive plan amendment to change the land use category to central urban and a rezoning request to make the property one zoning category, commercial planned development.

Both the Lee County Planning Agency and the Lee County Hearing Examiner recommended denial of the project, or at least "remanding" the project back to staff for further work. Lee County Commissioners followed that recommendation, remanding the project back to planning staff for further work in fall 2016.

In spring 2017, Mayher added a different comprehensive plan amendment: Destination Resort Mixed Use Water Dependent (DRMUWD). This kind of land use is already approved on the island as part of a different project EbbTide.

He was told by county staff that he had to pick one amendment or the other, but for now Mayher said they're keeping all their options on the table.

But, DRMUWD is moving forward: it's set to go before the LPA on March 26.

According to Mayher, he's made significant changes to this design in comparison to his old plan.

Bay Harbour will still have about 113 residential units, but Mayher's moved some of them from the condo tower to a row of townhouses along the canal. The condo tower will still be about 145 feet high, but Mayher's redesigned the building plan to have a tiered, step-up style. Only a portion of the tower will rise to 145 feet, from which diners on the roof-top restaurant can admire the view. The 7.58-acre property will still have a parking garage, marina and boat barn, and Mayher's added what he calls civic space for tennis courts, open to the public. The street setbacks have also been increased from what's required.

"We know we'll never please everybody," Mayher said. "But if you're not growing, you're dying."

The Bay Harbour project faced staunch opposition during its last go-round at the county, and it looks like the March 26 meeting will be similar.

Mayher spoke with members of the Beach Area Civic Association during its Jan. 23 meeting. Two of the biggest complaints to his project are its density and intensity compared to the surrounding area and its impacts to traffic on Main Street, a two-lane road.

"We're concerned about the infrastructure required to support Main Street," said Randy Shaul, a part-time Nancy Lane resident.

He's a self-described "NIMBY" or "Not In My Back Yard," saying he doesn't want to look up at a 145-foot building. He's also concerned about the traffic impacts - but unfortunately, that concern won't register into official consideration.

According to a Florida state statute, the Lee County Commissioners cannot deny a development project because of its traffic impacts alone.

"As Jack said, traffic is off the table as a problem. We all beg to differ," Shaul said.

Mayher also takes offense when his project is called "too dense." His property sits across the canal from Oak Street, which is lined with mobile homes with a density of about 9 units an acre, a density repeated down the next several streets.

He also points to EbbTide, another San Carlos Island project that's already been approved. EbbTide is yet-to-be-built and seeking an "appropriate developer," according to one of its owners, Matt Hanson.

The project would replace the EbbTide RV Park's 271 mobile homes with an equal number of condominiums, as well as a 450-room hotel and other commercial entities. Its tallest building is slated to be about 230 feet. The project was approved in 2009 with the same DRMUWD land use that Bay Harbour now seeks.

"People say (Bay Harbour) is 'too dense' for San Carlos Island, but everyone else is on nine units per acre," Mayher said. "Why shouldn't I be entitled to nine units per acre?"

Charlie Whitehead, president of the BACA group, doesn't think that because EbbTide is approved that it should give Bay Harbour a green light.

"You guys legally see EbbTide as a precedent," Whitehead said. "Some see that as mistakes that were made."

Keeping options open

Mayher said he believes he's gone to "great lengths" to adjust the project to be more agreeable to the surrounding neighbors. During the meeting, he said he'd be willing to sit down with anyone who wanted to discuss the project.

"We've contemplated really changing our plan," Mayher said. "I don't want to go through the smoke and mirrors at the LPA. Maybe we'll scrap the plan and build a hotel."

Mayher claimed that he would be able to build a parking garage and hotel on his property "now," based on its zoning.

The Observer was unable to interview Sharon Jenkins-Owen, Lee County's planner for the Bay Harbour project. Efforts to set up an interview for Thursday, Friday or Monday were not successful. However, count spokesman Tim Engstrom provided the following information after receiving written questions:

Bay Harbour's 7.58-acre property includes multiple different parcels with various zoning districts: Light Industrial Marine, Commercial and Mobile Home. Permitted uses for these districts are "too voluminous to list," according to Engstrom's email. The property has a zoning approval from 2008 that has not been enacted, but remains valid, which would allow Mayher to build two different things: a dry boat storage building with a maximum floor area of 72,000 square feet and a maximum height of 65 feet with a maximum of 286 dry boat storage slips along with a maximum of 29 wet slips; and

a 7,200-square-foot multipurpose building with a maximum height of 35 feet to contain a maximum of two stories over parking. The approval specifically provides for a member's facility/common space,

a ships store and a restaurant of 2,100 square feet.

With its current zoning districts, the only one that would allow a hotel would be the commercial zoning, according to Engstrom's email. And, "conventional zoning," such as the commercial zoning, "does not permit a hotel/motel containing more than 200 rooms." Mayher also has a rezoning request into the county that would change the entire 7.5 acres into mixed use planned development, which "provides more design flexibility" and could increase the number of rooms allowed.

Mayher said a hotel would be a "path of least resistance" to build something on his property, but he still feels his current plan would be the best design for the property and for the area.

Shaul said he accepts something will eventually be built. During the meeting, Whitehead warned the BACA members that the Local Planning Agency positions had seen some turn-over since 2015. The members are appointed by county commissioners, and Whitehead said he wasn't sure if these members would lean toward developers or residents.

"I think they'll beat us with this planning commission," Shaul said. "I personally know it's a losing battle."

A project of this scale will shoot his property value way up - which would be a good thing for him later, but for now he doesn't want to be paying more on his property taxes.

"I'm not specifically against development," he said. "I think a hotel there would be better."

Building blocks

"Jack and Nick aren't going away," Jack Mayher said, referring to himself and partner Nick Ruland. "We're going to build something."

But Mayher will face one of the same hurdles everyone else does: the corridor leading to his future development. The drive into San Carlos Island isn't exactly a winning ticket for investment.

Many of the businesses along the boulevard have left over the years, and not many have come to replace them.

Residential development is one area that hasn't been lagging on San Carlos Island. The side of the island west of San Carlos Boulevard has seen several new homes on the rise - and really, rising.

The large waterfront homes are looking out toward Matanzas Pass Bridge and the northern tip of Fort Myers Beach.

"Waterfront will always be in big demand. A lot of it was over priced before, but some prices are going down and they're selling," said Jason Padilla, a Realtor with RWB Real Estate. He deals in both commercial and residential real estate on Fort Myers Beach and San Carlos Island.

As a born-and-raised Fort Myers Beach native, Padilla said he wants the culture of the island to be preserved but likes to see the new, modern houses going up on San Carlos Island.

With Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood rules, people can't build one-level ranch style homes anymore, which is part of why these taller, larger-footprint homes are so prevalent, he said.

"With the FEMA rules, homes have to be built taller. It's taken over the architecture," Padilla said, but added: "I love seeing these new homes. They look cool and they bring more people in."

Even the east side of San Carlos Island is starting to see some home changes. One home in a similar style is under construction on Oak Street.

That's not to say business has been completely stagnant. Fat Tire Bikes opened in the old Dodo's Cheap Shop; Booba's Bar changed hands, and names, to Hurricane Tina's Bar.

Although a little farther up San Carlos Boulevard, Padilla said he recently sold the former Sun Bay newspaper building across the street from Walmart.

He's also got several other commercial listings on San Carlos Boulevard; he said he believes the price is what's slowing down some of the sales.

Matt Hanson, one of EbbTide's owners, said he and the other owners tried to work with Lee County and the Florida Department of Transportation on a streetscape beautification project to give the boulevard a facelift. Last year, he and others had a meeting with a FDOT representative who seemed enthusiastic with the idea - only to find out later that the same representative was no longer in the same position.

"We were hoping we were making some progress," he said. "Unfortunately there are a lot of businesses not in operation right now. I think beautification would help attract new tenant."

Hanson was thinking, more palm trees lining the boulevard, planter boxes with colorful vegetation - something that would break up all the concrete.

EbbTide was approved in 2009 and has remained dormant. So far, Hanson said he doesn't have any big announcement about sales of the condominiums, which are sometimes referred to as "Marina Preserve." He and the other owners are hoping to find the right developer who will follow their vision, he said.

"People have come by and their vision is different. I think we're trying to be selective in who ultimately is that developer," he said. "We want someone who will enhance island."

Hanson said his commentary on Mayher's project is that he's interested to see the next proposal at the LPA and watch how the county reacts this time around.

"There are a lot of interested parties both existing and potential investors that would like to see something happen," he said.

Padilla said many of the potential buyers for his commercial properties actually get excited about the traffic on San Carlos Boulevard - it means more exposure to their business. He agrees with Hanson that the boulevard could use a little "sprucing up" to make the island entrance look better.

And, Padilla thinks new development will encourage others to invest on the island.

"I think any kind of development that enhances people to get here is awesome," he said. "I think the beach is going in the right direction. We want to make is more modern and pretty, and it's nice to see older buildings get revamped."

Orlandini hopes his two boulevard projects will be a positive thing for the island, too. While plans are not finalized for Warfield's, he's able to move forward with MoJoe's Reef and open the business soon.

"I hope it helps the boulevard," he said. "San Carlos Island is a unique place. We want the entrance to look good."



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