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County approves 60-foot bridge option 4-1

December 27, 2018
By JESSE MEADOWS ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A 60-foot fixed span bridge, not a lower drawbridge, will be built across Big Carlos Pass, replacing the existing structure.

The Lee County Board of County Commissioners made that decision at their Dec. 18 meeting.

Five members of the public spoke against the fixed-span option, including a council member from Bonita Springs and a former mayor from Fort Myers Beach.

They were concerned about environmental impacts and quality-of-life issues, like losing the ability to fish off the bridge.

"Fishing off of a drawbridge is old Florida," said Ray Murphy, former mayor of Fort Myers Beach.

His family has owned property near the bridge since the early 1970s.

He recalled a day in April 1984 when someone caught a record-breaking snook off the bridge.

"Forty-four pounds 42 inches... Our bridge tender would not have been able to bring it off that bridge had it been 60 feet up in the air... I've seen countless numbers of kids catch their first fish off that bridge, I've seen families enjoy it. That will be gone," he said.

He also questioned how the loss of the drawbridge will affect shoreline fishermen who don't have the means or licenses to go out on the water to fish.

Local residents Charles Johnson and Henry Bickel brought up concerns about the environmentally sensitive area on the gulf side where the new bridge's ramps will be built.

Johnson said he was driving home one day and noticed a group of cars parked along the road.

"I stopped to see what they were all doing there. Turns out, there is a wetland right there that will be destroyed by this bridge, and a rare bird had showed up. Some birdwatcher had seen it, sent out a text to other birdwatchers, and within an hour to two hours, people from all over Lee County were there to see this bird," he said.

Robert Miniger, who did not attend the meeting but did send Commissioner Larry Kiker a letter voicing his dissent for the 60-foot option, said his condo association at Marina Towers is disappointed that adverse environmental impacts were not addressed by the board.

Steve Labelle from the Island Beach Club stated that he has a group of more than 3000 owners on both sides of the bridge that oppose the 60-foot option.

"Last January, at least 600 people attended the open house on the bridge at the Bay Oaks Rec Center on Fort Myers Beach," he said during public comment.

"At a later Fort Myers Beach meeting, Doug Meurer, assistant county manager, spoke and advised that almost 90 percent of the written comments at the Jan 18 meeting favored the drawbridge, and further commented there was no question the majority of residents on Fort Myers Beach favored the drawbridge concept over the fixed bridge alternative."

At the work session on Dec 6, Kiker raised questions about county staff's cost calculations.

County Manager Roger Desjarlais responded at the Dec 18 meeting that no matter what numbers they used, the 60- foot option is the cheapest to build and maintain over a 75-year lifespan.

Amy Quaremba, a council member from Bonita Springs who holds a Ph.D. in economics, told the board during public comment that she did her own analysis of county staff's cost projections.

It took her three days to unravel their numbers, but she found the total cost difference between the 24-foot and 60-foot options to be $20 million.

Dividing that by the bridge's 75-year lifespan gave her a difference of $250,000 a year.

"Everybody along the Bonita Beach corridor wants us to maintain human scale development," Quaremba said.

"I think it's worth $250,000 a year to have the kind of community that our people have time and time again said they wanted."

Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass responded that he had been contacted by residents who supported the 60-foot option, but they may not have attended the meeting for fear of being "called out" by their neighbors.

"This whole thing is about transportation, getting cars from point A to point B. That's what the bridge is for and that's what we need to stay focused on," he said.

Kiker and Commissioner Brian Hamman both said they would like to see a fishing pier included in the design for the new bridge to alleviate some of their constituents' quality of life concerns.

All members of the public who spoke requested that the commissioners delay their decision.

Kiker asked what would happen if they were to push the vote a couple of months.

"The existing bridge is rapidly reaching its end of life cycle. We have concrete that falls off the bridge periodically, we're always out there repairing it. I think there are actually holes in the walkway sometimes that go straight to the water. It will eventually be a public safety hazard," responded Desjarlais.

"This is a process we simply need to keep moving at its current pace so we don't get behind."

The motion passed 4-1, with Kiker dissenting.

Now that the board has approved the 60- foot option, county staff can finalize the Project Development and Environment Study and send it to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Then they can begin the permitting process.

Desjarlais said the county plans to hold a series of public hearings toward the end of next year and into 2020, with construction planned to begin in 2021.



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