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TPI advances to Town Council

April 4, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

It's down to five people to decide the fate of the TPI-FMB project.

TPI Hospitality will go before the Fort Myers Beach Town Council Monday, April 9 - the town has also cleared April 10's schedule in case the meeting is continued.

It will be a moment of reckoning for the Fort Myers Beach resident and developer, Tom Torgerson, to see if his project's deviations from the land development code balance with the public benefits he believes it proffers.

Article Photos

Robert Boykin of the Pink Shell talks to TPI spokesman John Gucciardo about his concerns with the parking calculations.

TPI-FMB is a rezoning request for a commercial planned development spread across three main parcels of land totaling about 5 acres. The bulk of the project is a resort hotel on what's now the dilapidated Helmrich Plaza, where Torgerson wants to place 260 hotel rooms in an A-shaped building at four stories and 40 feet over flood elevation. Pedestrian bridges connect the resort to two other parcels: one over Fifth Street to the now-parking lot next to The Lighthouse Resort that would become a small business center for resort guests and another over Estero Boulevard that would connect the resort to a restaurant and bar with an additional 30 rooms on top, also a 40-foot over flood height.

Next to the restaurant open to the public is the beach club concept, which is aimed for use by adults with a lazy river and swim-up bar. It will be an amenity to the resort guests but will be open to a limited number of paying public; the venue can hold about 950 people, but TPI has said it will limit public tickets to 225 so as to provide plenty of space for its hotel guests - a number that town staff has said it has no way of monitoring, but that TPI staff has said is the optimal number for keeping the priority of access to resort guests.

The town-owned Canal Street separates, at an angle, the beach club area; TPI has proposed that if the town will vacate that right of way, it will build a new parking lot area for the town at its southernmost boundary with 26 spots and donate the land back to the town, which can then generate money from the meters.

Clearing the code

TPI is asking for deviations from the Land Development Code.

It's allow to ask.

The Town Council is allowed to say yes. Or no. Or somewhere in between.

It all comes down to interpretation.

In the LDC, the council is tasked with weighing public benefit against the deviations - as in, will the public benefit balance the increased height or density.

TPI-FMB has requested the following deviations from the LDC with its request:

1. To allow 290 rooms by calculating an equivalency factor of 12 instead of the maximum three as defined in the LDC. The town has a calculation to covert the number of allowed single-family homes on a property to the number of hotel or condo units which would be allowed. The highest multiplier now is three.

2. To allow the main resort and beachside building to be four stories and 40 feet tall over flood regulations. The LDC allows a three story, 40 foot building on the Gulfside of Estero, however the bayside is capped at three stories and 30 feet.

3. To allow a floor area ratio (FAR) of 1.6 for the entire property. Now part of the FAR for the property is 1.4 and the other part is 1.1. FAR determines how large a building can be based on its parcel size.

4. To allow a different buffer and sidewalk plan than the Type D stipulated in the LDC.

What public benefits are TPI proffering?

Perhaps the most benefit it's offering is one very specifically outlined in the comprehensive plan: a Gulf view corridor in perpetuity.

On the Gulfside, TPI has plans for a public restaurant and bar with 30 hotel rooms for its resort on top. It's keeping the historical Cigar Hut building, but everything else will be razed for the beach club and development rights will be waived in perpetuity. That means, if someday that property is sold again, another developer should not be able to build anything on that Gulfside property.

This is a benefit specifically outlined in the Comprehensive Plan as a fair trade for additional building height. According to Policy 4-C-4, "Particular attention would be paid to any permanent view corridors to the Gulf or bay waters that could be provided in exchange for allowing a building to be taller than two stories."

TPI also wants to build aesthetically pleasing pedestrian bridges that both connect its properties. The walkways are ADA compliant and open to the public. It's up for debate whether these will encourage people to walk up and over rather than cross the street at will, however in an entirely separate project, the Florida Department of Transportation is considering installing guard rails from Fifth to Crescent Street, which might funnel pedestrians toward either a crosswalk or the bridge.

Tom Torgerson, the chairman of the TPI board, estimated the entire project - resort, beach club, and restaurant - will create 200 jobs and, based on a consultant's review, generate $2.3 million in impact fees, $1.25 million in bed taxes, and $1.2 million in property taxes, and the town will get $125,000 annually from the proposed 26-space parking lot that TPI will donate to the town.

Those numbers are based on about a three-year operating outlook, he said. It takes a few years to become "stabilized," or reach an average occupancy, and property taxes are assessed for the previous year's value.

"I really feel is this doesn't get approved, who knows who else will take a shot at it, but I don't think they'll ever see this level of community involvement or a better proposal," he said.

It would be a deal-breaker to try to cut the number of rooms down, too.

"People think 290 is arbitrary," said John Gucciardo, TPI's consultant and former deputy town manager. "Two hundred ninety isn't arbitrary. It's a product of intense evaluation."

Torgerson said he wouldn't accept changes to the project that would reduce its financial feasibility. The project has to get a return on TPI Hospitality's more than $30 million land buy.

There are those who want to approve the project as is, accepting the project's impacts in exchange for a refreshed look to Fort Myers Beach's front door and new opportunities, and those who believe it is too intense for the area, adding too much traffic with questions still on the table on sufficient parking.

TPI-FMB is requesting 290 rooms, which it often compares to the pre-Hurricane Charley numbers. Before Charley decimated several of the businesses and hotels in the area in 2004, there were about 240 hotel rooms - but that's counting the area that's now Crescent Beach Park, which is not a part of TPI-FMB's project jurisdiction. It's also counting 60 rooms which were approved, but had not yet been built.

The Voice of Fort Myers Beach, a group opposed to TPI's project, has objected to what it considers a project too dense and intense. Those who have spoke on behalf of the group are other Fort Myers Beach hotel owners, including Paul Malbon of Best Western, Doug Speirn-Smith of Matanzas Inn; and Robert Boykin of Pink Shell. Speirn-Smith is also a beach resident.

Boykin argues that the pre-Charley numbers are invalidated now.

"Hurricane Charley wiped out lodging, but AirBnB has replaced that inventory," he said.

The Voice has stated on its Facebook page and through its marketing tactics, performed by CONRIC PR, that it opposes overdevelopment, not development. Boykin said his two personal issues with the project were parking and traffic.

He doesn't believe Town Consultant Bill Spikowski's number, 371, really encompasses the 290-room resort and employees plus parking for the public to use the water venue. The Pink Shell has been around for decades; Boykin said he doesn't think promoting off-island parking at the Park and Ride for employees will be successful. He also doesn't think the parking allocated for public aquatic venue use in Spikowski's report - up to 225 public users a day - will work.

Traffic is also a concern. The traffic analysis provided didn't show any gross impacts, but Boykin believes that to be untrue.

"One thing hasn't changed, there's one road on and one road off," he said. "Traffic continues to get more intense."

Tetra Tech's latest analysis of traffic impacts, released March 16, concurs. Tetra Tech doesn't want TPI to use calculations that involve bike and pedestrian trips or take comments from surrounding business owners about how their customers arrive.

The project also removes what's now a paid beach parking lot, and Tetra Tech recommends the applicant should have to provide overflow parking until the operation of the development shows that the provided parking is adequate.

Tetra Tech also expresses concern that a queueing study should be done to see how the valet-only garage might cause a stacking issue as guests arrive at the hotel.

Boykin claims the issue could lie with a lack of resort management experience from TPI, a lack of institutional knowledge on staff, and a willingness of Spikowski to "thread the needle" for TPI is what's driving some of the project.

Spikowski did not recommend approval or denial of the project; his report outlined several paths the town council could take to either deny or approve, or approve with modifications, and also a list of suggested conditions to go with approval.

TPI Hospitality group specializes in building and managing hotels, restaurants and convention centers. Its hotel in Naples holds 122 rooms and employs 30 people.

Torgerson estimates his project will have about 50 employees on site at a time. According to Spikowski's parking calculations, employee parking is included in his total number of 371. That number also uses the discount applied to developments in the downtown area that contribute to a "park once" idea.

"We feel it's reasonable. It's logical, the main public benefit is keeping the Gulfside open in perpetuity," said Gucciardo. "Those units would have value, and we're giving that up."

Alternative facts and other conflicts

Within the last few months, the conversation circulating around the TPI-FMB project has been riddled with conflicting information, at-odds reports and a lack of procedural knowledge from the town.

The only official documents reviewing the TPI project are the two supplemental staff reports by Jason Green and LDC author Bill Spikowski's detailed analysis. Spikowski was slated to write one comprehensive report with input from multiple members of staff and input from town consultant Tetra Tech, as revealed through a public records request by the Observer for emails concerning the TPI project.

The first time Green mentioned generating his own report was in an email on Jan. 29, just two weeks before the LPA meeting.

Both of Green's reports have conflicting information to Spikowski's report, and bring up differing opinions that TPI's staff claim had never been brought up before, a point which was a cause of concern to the LPA.

Spikowski was hired in August 2017 to help the town review the project. The LPA discarded Green's report and recommended approval of the TPI proposal by following Spikowski's review and suggested conditions. Green's second report was issued after the LPA and includes a recommendation to deny the project.

Besides the three reports, the town did not have clear direction on what governmental process it was supposed to use to discuss the TPI project. For the past 20 years, the town has been using a resolution to approve (or deny) a rezoning request. A resolution requires only one public hearing and generally is used for matters of policy.

But at the March 19 meeting, Town Attorney John Turner told the council the town should be using an ordinance for a rezoning application, a two-hearing process established in state statute for applications that change the zoning map in a municipality. Council debated which method they should use - and which could open them up to legal challenges. In the end, they decided to get a second legal opinion. On March 27, the town updated TPI with a memo on the process it would use: a first hearing on April 9 (with the potential to bleed into April 10) with applicant presentation, town staff comments, public comment, and council dialogue with staff and the applicant. The council could vote at this meeting to send the rezoning ordinance to a second hearing, approximately a month later, to officially approve or deny the project.

In addition to the conflicting actual staff reports, more than one document claiming to have all the facts straight has been circulated through the "coconut telegraph" of Fort Myers Beach, especially on social media.

Both TPI-FMB and The Voice of Fort Myers Beach have gathered a following on their respective Facebook pages. Both are continuously posting information they believe backs their case.

TPI-FMB has posted numerous graphics comparing its density "ask" with that of other Fort Myers Beach hotels. However, most hotels were approved before the town incorporated. It also compared TPI to Harbour House and Edison Beach House, two hotels built after the town incorporated. However, both had some extenuating circumstances: Edison Beach House was a build-back property, formerly known as the Pink Porpoise Inn, and so its density was grandfathered in. Harbour House narrowly made it, because at the same time as its application the town was working on a Downtown Overlay District for Old San Carlos which allowed a higher density.

The Voice of Fort Myers Beach circulated a document that used the Town's official water stamp with selective excerpts from the comprehensive plan. Citizens for Responsible Growth Coalition also circulated what they called their own staff report on the TPI project. They sent this "report" to the town council for consideration.

Another group, 5 Decide, started as a grass-roots effort to support TPI with facts-based information. It too has created a Facebook group, but it is not directly connected to the TPI-FMB page. It was started by two Palermo Circle residents who wanted to fight misinformation.

A difference of opinion

The Beach Area Civic Association held a forum Monday night, inviting the community to ask questions of both TPI-FMB and of the Voice group.

The forum, moderated by president Charlie Whitehead, created a dialogue between the public and the two groups.

Leah Gregg, one of the founding members of 5 Decide, asked The Voice to identify themselves - and then asked if they could change their name.

"You are misrepresenting us," she said, adding that while they may call themselves the voice of the community, they did not express her voice.

Boykin said the group started as a collection of hoteliers when Torgerson unveiled his first idea, Grand Resorts. Boykin denied that the group's opposition to the current proposal, TPI-FMB, had to do with competition - but rather, controlling new development from taking over the island.

"People are discovering Fort Myers Beach. Tom Torgerson is just the tip of the spear," he said. "Fort Myers Beach says 'hey, redevelop me!'"

Boykin said his, and the group's, major concern was that if TPI got it wrong, it'd be wrong forever. His personal concerns were with traffic and parking. He suggested TPI's parking plan wasn't fully vetted - with Spikowski's number, and Green's number, the parking was probably somewhere in the middle. He was also concerned with event parking at the resort, such as a wedding.

Whitehead had obtained a list of 17 people who had contributed to The Voice and helped hired CONRIC PR to spread their message; he said he knew three out of the 17 who weren't in the beach's hospitality business.

Gucciardo said that the discussion on parking, launched in the LPA by the conflicting numbers in the reports, was influencing some change on TPI's plan. They're currently working on conditional language that could be added to address the cap on public entry into beach club, so that it would be written into the CPD.

The debate on whether employee parking is or isn't included is up for debate, Gucciardo said. Spikowski says it's included in the LDC requirements for parking calculations; Green doesn't think so.

"We have as much interest as everyone else to have parking," Gucciardo said. "Or else, we'll have some angry hotel guests."

Tammy Stockton pointed out that while TPI is offering public benefits, Doug Speirn-Smith's project did not.

"You brought us nothing but a vape shop," she said.

Harbour House's density was allowed under the Downtown Overlay District, but it did ask for additional deviations: removing its setback requirements on First and Second Street, allowing 100 percent lot coverage, and increasing the floor plan size of its "efficiency" units.

Still, Speirn-Smith called TPI's proposal "totally inconsistent" and at "unimaginable" scale with its surrounding.

"Bill Spikowski isn't a lawyer, he's a planner. It's not a good deal," he said. "We can do better."

While TPI-FMB would be taller than the surrounding businesses and homes, Torgerson has gotten all of the surrounding properties to voice their support for his project. Andrea Carriere of the Silver Sands spoke during public comment at the LPA in favor; Ray's Pizza emailed the town supporting the project; The Lighthouse Inn's Thomas Kolar submitted a letter Feb. 3 asking the town to approve the project. The project's architecture mimics many of the Key-West style structures on the island and will even match its next-door neighbor - John Richard is giving the building at 1165 Estero Blvd. a facelift, also with Key-West style design.

Joe Stockton also spoke up about public benefits in trade for LDC deviations. He said the council and other residents should be concentrating on the benefits trade off for the increased intensity, not comparing TPI-FMB to what other hotels have asked for, as each one is different.

"We allow for waiving (density). If TPI is asking for a waiver, they're saying we may be overshooting but one shoe doesn't fit all people," Stockton said. "There are rules and methods to define if a waiver can be issued based on the value to the community. We're talking about, will this be added benefit to the town, or else we'll be going around and around."

After the forum, The Voice posted to its Facebook page to thank BACA for the forum and provide a comment: "Sometimes it's okay to agree to disagree.



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