Well, January was a busy month for Council. We held two meetings, on January 9 and January 23. Both meetings exceeded the four hour limit set in our charter for meetings, and motions to extend the meetings had to be approved by a Council majority. The first meeting lasted over four and a half hours and ended after 10pm. The second meeting lasted more than five hours and ended just before 11 pm. Numerous items were addressed in these two meetings, but I will focus on what I believe to be the three most significant: Future of the Racquet Center, Reuse Water Treatment, and the second application for approval of a Site Development Plan for a restaurant at 1202 Bald Eagle Drive (next to the Snook Inn).
Racquet Center—The City inherited the Racquet Center from the County when it was incorporated twenty-five years ago. At the time it was a tennis facility with a racquetball building, and eventually, some courts were added for the growing sport of pickleball. In recent years, tennis participation has dropped off precipitously while pickleball participation has exploded, part of both a local and national trend. Today there are 371 pickleball members at the Center, while 163 individuals are waitlisted for membership. The Center has stopped adding names to the waitlist, which would otherwise be much larger. These numbers represent dramatic growth over the past several years. These members have to share 9 courts between them and the many visitors who purchase day passes as well. The result is that on many mornings during round robin play there are more players waiting to play than there are players on the courts.
Compare this with the tennis courts, of which there are six, and which typically take up four times the space of a pickleball court. Many mornings while the pickleball courts are jammed and dozens are waiting to play, some if not most of the tennis courts are unused. Some of these courts are old and need to be updated in terms of their irrigation systems or else repurposed. Further, tennis membership at the Center used to far exceed pickleball membership, but has fallen dramatically in recent years. Today there are only 75 tennis members (and no waitlist) and only 10 for racquetball. Obviously, given the changes in demand, things need to change at the Racquet Center.
The City and the Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee (PRAC) engaged a nationally respected recreation facilities consultant, Ballard and King, to assess the current situation and needs and to make recommendations going forward. The matter came before Council on January 9, with PRAC making a short term recommendation to immediately convert two of the tennis courts to create 8 additional pickleball courts. Ballard and King came forward with some longer term options for Council to consider. Due to the overwhelming growth in pickleball, Council settled on an option which will result in removal of the underutilized racquetball building, using that space to provide additional parking, while completely revamping the footprint of the Racquet Center itself to become an exclusively pickleball facility.
Specifically, Council directed City staff to come forward with a recommendation to convert two tennis courts to pickleball courts in the short term, and for staff to work with PRAC to develop a full cost and implementation study implementing the recommendations noted above by Ballard King and to bring options back for future Council consideration. In discussions on this matter, Vice Chair Grifoni suggested that tourist development funds from the County might be available to support such a project. The Parks Foundation may also be able to help raise private contributions, in addition to City funding. More on this issue in the future as plans are developed.
Reuse Water Treatment—Also at our January 9 meeting, Council acted on a motion by Councilor Blonna to bring in a vendor to discuss how to reduce nutrients in our Reuse water. Council voted this down, 4-3, taking the position that nitrogen and phosphorus from the City’s reclaimed water is not a major cause of degraded water in our canals. The decision was based on a study conducted by Jacobs Engineering, which “did not find a compelling rationale for improvements in the RWPF (Reclaimed Water Production Facility)” and recent water quality reports which have shown a reduction in the level of nutrients (both nitrogen and phosphorus) in the City’s waterways. Reclaimed or Reuse water is highly treated wastewater used for irrigation of City parks, public medians and rights of way, golf courses and condominium landscape areas.
Recent studies by Dr. Harper from Environmental Research and Design and from Jacobs Engineering both agree that phosphorus is not a nutrient of concern in Marco Island waterways. Additionally, City staff have collected groundwater samples and the results have shown that the phosphorus and nitrogen levels in the groundwater where Reuse water is applied were both below the levels set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Most recently, and I find this very significant—testing conducted by Advanced Environmental Laboratories at 14 key sites found that nitrogen was undetectable at all 14 sites.
Given these data, Council concluded that it made no sense to bring in a vendor to discuss how to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus from Reuse water because those elements are not the problem in our canals. More detailed information about all of this can be found in Press Release 2305 dated January 19 on the City’s website, under “News.”
Site Development Plan — 1202 Bald Eagle Drive— this is the second time Council has considered a site development plan for this property. Last year Council considered and rejected the application of the owner to build a 272 seat restaurant on the property next to Snook Inn. The arrangement involved using the old Marek’s property, which is nearly 1000 feet South of the subject property, to supplement the on-site parking to enable the 272 seat restaurant to meet code. We exercised our discretion to reject this arrangement because we deemed it unworkable, and under the Land Development Code approval of such a parking agreement was clearly subject to the discretion of Council.
Now the owner has come back and decided to accept a restaurant the size it is permitted to build under the Land Development Code, i.e., 168 seats. This proposal was approved by the Planning Board late last year and ordinarily that would have been the end of things. The application would have been approved and Council would have had no role in the process, since no variance was requested and the issue was simply whether the application complied with the Land Development Code, or not. However, Snook Inn, on the adjacent property, appealed the decision of the Planning Board, as is its right. So, the matter came back before Council on January 23, with Council conducting a quasi-judicial hearing on the appeal in its role as the Zoning Board of Appeals.
Both sides put on their cases through their attorneys. The restaurant owner and City staff put forward evidence that the owner had sufficient parking, including spots directly across Palm Avenue from the property which is also owned by the owner, to build a restaurant with 168 seats. This included five boat slips in the Marco River which would be counted if navigable and if appropriate dredging certificates were issued and dredging completed to make those slips actually usable. Many residents also expressed their support for another fine dining establishment on the Island, and urged us to approve the application. Snook Inn then argued that the restaurant would add to congestion on that end of town and endanger drivers and pedestrians. Snook argued that because the boat slips were not navigable, and because the twelve parking spots across Palm Avenue were too far removed from the restaurant, that the restaurant should be approved with seating for a maximum of about 104 customers. Many residents also spoke passionately against the restaurant as proposed, particularly those living in nearby areas. The City Attorney advised Council that the 168 seat request was effectively an “entitlement” under our Code, as it appeared to meet the plain requirements of our ordinances. After hours of argument and discussion among Council members, Councilor Blonna moved to grant the appeal. This motion was seconded by Councilor Rola but was rejected by a 4-2 vote, with one abstention. I then moved to reject the appeal and approve the application for the restaurant with two conditions:
Boat slips must be usable prior to occupancy, or credit will not be given for those spots, and
The 12 space parking lot across Palm Avenue must be gated and only used for restaurant staff and valet parking.
The two conditions, I believe, address most of Snook’s concerns. Credit will not be given for boat slips if they are not usable, and if unusable the number of seats permitted in the restaurant will be reduced accordingly. Secondly, by controlling access to the 12 space lot across Palm Avenue, the owner gets to utilize those spaces but they won’t be open to the general public, reducing the amount of congestion that would arise from drivers circling that lot waiting for spots to open up.
I know neither side was happy with this outcome, but it is what I believe our Code requires. The property is zoned C-4 commercial and the owner bought it with that understanding and an intention to use the property as allowed by our Code. Residents nearby chose to live in Olde Marco with an understanding that they live in an area with a heavy concentration of businesses permitted by our Code. We can and will consider whether it remains appropriate across the Island to grant four seats in a restaurant for each parking spot. We will also look at whether there should be some limitation or ban on parking in swales in the Olde Marco neighborhood. That is for another day. But, the appeal was rejected and the site plan, with the conditions noted above, was approved by a vote of 4-2.
In February much more will be on the agenda, including updates on implementation of the Rental Registration Ordinance. Also, the Police Foundation will have lunch with the Chief on February 16 - see the Foundation’s website Link: https://marcopolicefoundation.org/events/ and Chief Frazzano will be honored at the Cancer Society’s Imagination Ball at the Marriott on February 25 link: https://IB2023.GiveSmart.com
Hope to see you at one or both of those events.
Have a great month.