BY MARCY SHORTUSE & LIZA STROUT - This past week several Boca Grande residents met with Commissioner John Manning in his office in Fort Myers, in reference to Gilchrist Avenue parking.
On Tuesday, according to Manning’s executive assistant, Nan Gonzalez met with Gilchrist residents Davis and Corinna Hammond, Ed Cruz, Dick Berry, Bill Regnery and Bob Fletcher, as well as with Department of Transportation staff members Randy Cerchie, David Loveland and Steve Jansen, as well as county attorney Michael Jacobs.
While the Gilchrist residents once again repeated their concerns with the parking issue on the Gilchrist median, Manning reiterated one word: consensus.
“He told them they need to work together with the community,” Gonzalez said. “DOT staff, as well as county engineers, are going to take their plan, as well as some other suggestions, look them over, and try to find a solution that will make everyone happy. Either they will decide not to do anything at all, or they will come back with a plan and see if they can get consensus on the island.”
But is the county willing to pay for any of these proposed changes? No.
“Commissioner Manning and staff asked who would be paying for it, and the people (the Gilchristians) said they would assess the property owners on Gilchrist,” Gonzalez said. “The commissioner told them they could not do that, only the county can do that. Legally, this all has to be looked at. Would we, the county, be the one to hire the contractor? Will we use an MSTU (Municipal Services Taxing Unit) to pay for it? All of this is still out there to be dealt with, even if we can reach consensus.
“But if consensus can’t be reached, we won’t be doing anything.”
Gonzalez also had a letter, written by Regnery, which was dated March 20, which expresses the eight primary concerns that the Gilchrist group has. Those points include:
• Off-island development affecting Boca Grande in the future;• Institution of a parking prohibition on Gilchrist Avenue, similar to the one on Gulf Boulevard;• No other median parking allowed in Lee County;• Comments from a retired Lee County Sheriff’s Department member expressing concern over Gilchrist parking;• Lowered property values due to Gilchrist parking;• Traffic congestion from the churches not limited to Sundays, and from functions outside the churches’ charters;• That Gilchrist Avenue should be treated like the “county treasure” and “Boca Grande legacy” that it is;• That the Methodist Church appealed their expansion denial in the “dead of summer” and that the expansion was possibly granted due to the county being given deceptive information by the church.
In conclusion the letter states, “While I am no lawyer, common sense suggests that the county shares liability with principals, should an accident occur ... I believe that the highest and best use of the Gilchrist median is to return it to its original use as a majestic corridor to safely conduct residents and visitors through the Historic District and first-platted neighborhood in Boca Grande.”
With all of the recent discussion of the Gilchrist parking situation, one voice that is missing is that of the business community of Boca Grande. While the churches may fill the spaces regularly, many others who work on the island every day park there as well.
There have been various ideas floating around to address the situation, most notably one put forward by the residents of Gilchrist. It involves landscaping and parallel parking, and has received quite a bit of commentary. Another possible plan, one that the Gilchrist churches seem to agree with as well, is simple landscaping and angled parking. That plan, though, is still under wraps at this time.
Emily Wheeler, owner of two shops in Boca Grande, thinks that drastic parking changes would mean a year-round solution for a one-month problem.
“It’s really only during March that it’s an issue,” she said. “I think it would be a waste of money to do anything major.”
Gail Cleveland of Smart Studio brought a little levity to the situation.
“I think that anyone who tries to keep people from going to church will probably be hit by lightning,” she chuckled. “More seriously, I think we need to have angled parking and a bit of landscaping. It’s more than just the church-goers, it’s also the workers. There just isn’t enough parking in town for everyone.”
Cleveland has noticed that the parking issue is reaching beyond the island.
“Not too long ago, Terry and I were going kayaking and wanted to park over by the new Placida Bridge, near the Fishery,” she said. “There were very few spaces left because some folks that work on Gasparilla Island park and then catch a ride onto the island from there. This is not good for boaters. We really could use a parking spot right off island for ride share. On our island in Maine, where we have our shop in a very similar situation – a causeway and too many cars – the government is building a lot, and we have a bus shuttle all over the island.”Capt. Sandy Melvin, owner of Gasparilla Outfitters, also shared his thoughts on the situation.
“My opinion is it’s in the best, long-term interest of the downtown business community, churches and all island residents to design the Gilchrist parking median for the maximum number of spaces possible,” he said. “I feel comfortable that the landscaping of the remaining space could then be accomplished in a manner that will fit the casual elegance of the surrounding homes.”
However, Melvin can see both sides of the argument.
“I understand how neighbors would like to see a more orderly and visually pleasing situation,” he said. “but any reduction in parking for the downtown area businesses would likely negatively affect our customers’ ability to visit our stores.”
Lew Hastings, executive director of the Boca Grande Area Chamber of Commerce, said he and the chamber board have given the situation a considerable amount of thought.
“While we understand the needs of Gilchrist Avenue residents, we need to find an agreeable parking compromise,” he said. “I have seen one plan that combines some additional landscaping with only a little less parking, that really seems to work. But some of the other suggestions that have been given, such as parallel parking, would greatly cut down the amount of space there is to park. And, as we all know, we’re on an island ... a limited amount of room remains.”
Some residents, such as Bob Fletcher and Corinna Hammond (who live on Gilchrist Avenue) have said they would like to return the median strip to it’s once-former glory. According to one old photo taken in the 1960s, that “former glory” includes lush grass and bougainvillea bushes, along with the existing palm trees. Granted, while some of the older palms have died, others have been planted in their places.
Letter from Gilchrist Avenue resident Bill Regnery to Lee County officials:
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