At last month’s meeting, random discussion of Gilchrist parking lingered, and board members decided they would table that talk until this month. At the Wednesday meeting the talk continued on ... and on ... and on. Whether the historic preservation board has any decision-making ability about parking on Gilchrist Avenue or not, talk continued at the March meeting.
Bob Fletcher, a Gilchrist Avenue resident and outspoken voice against parking on the Gilchrist median, told the historic preservation board that he and other residents have proposed approximately a dozen plans for Gilchrist parking. They are, at this time, trying to come to an agreement with churches on that avenue, as well as other island entities, to find a way to come to peace with more limited parking.
“There are several plans floating around about Gilchrist,” he said. “Jack (Damioli) has a plan the Inn has presented as well. He has gotten the churches to come together with him and agree, and that is a huge step. I think we’re close to an agreement. Hopefully we don’t have to have a petition drive, or a vote, or a legal remedy. It’s going to require some heavy lifting, and it’s probably going to get nasty. I think it will be done, though, and 10 years from now people will be wondering what the argument was about.”
Fletcher and the “Gilchrist group” have been trying to change parking on Gilchrist Avenue for at least five years, but the county has yet to approve plans.
Board member Tim Seibert said that Gilchrist Avenue should be considered as a “historic resource,” and it should be designated as such. Why? Because when even more people start to come to the island in coming years, as he predicts they will, parking problems there will get even worse.
“Plant it the way Mrs. (Louise duPont) Crowninshield had it,” he said. “Parallel park on both sides of the street ... what are you going to do when you have this big, strong, new bridge to bring tour buses to Boca Grande, and they turn people loose? Where do you park the buses? It was crowded this season like I’ve never seen, sometimes traffic at the bridge is backed up half a mile. When the mainland booms and happy good times are here again, people from up north are going to come and buy those condominiums by the Publix market. If we don’t do something now, we’ll be like every other dumb community, like Ft. Myers Beach.”
Corinna Hammond, a resident of Gilchrist Avenue, made it clear that she views her street’s parking issues as a definite problem.
“If we wanted to live on a parking lot, we would have built our houses next to Wal-mart,” she said. “I think it’s time the community comes together on this historic part of our town. I’m sure we could have slightly restricted parking, or designated parking. There are other places for people to park within two or three blocks.”
“I think Tim is right about traffic coming over. The Methodist Church function hall will only become more busy. It will become the VFW Hall, where people are going to come for everything. Grande Aire had a meeting there, and there were 85 trucks parked out there. That was fine, but what I’m suggesting is that this place will be used more and more, and for things other than on Sundays. We have to come to some agreement between those who live on Gilchrist and those who use it for a parking garage.”
Gloria Sajgo, principal planner for the Lee County Planning Division, said that this was not necessarily an issue that could be addressed by the historic preservation board, that the issues were much more island-wide and that the board had the authority to make suggestions, but not decisions.
“This is more a problem of a lack of consensus,” she said. “This is not in this board’s perview.”
To which Fletcher responded, “We have about 5,000 residents on the island, and somewhere between 900,000 and one million bridge crossings a year. I request, Gloria, that staff stop saying ‘consensus.’ Jesus Christ couldn’t arrive here and have a consensus. With Gilchrist Avenue, there will be people who don’t want parking and those who want to shell it over and have parking. I think the word ‘consensus’ is unfair to the rest of us.”
Seibert said that the board should “read the directions carefully” as to their true powers.
“We do have powers,” he said. “They were established about five years ago and I think they’ve been forgotten. I left Sarasota because they destroyed it, I’d hate to see that happen here.”
Board member Richard Robb said he wasn’t sure if the historic board had any input into the decision-making process on Gilchrist parking, either.
“If your neighbor chooses to paint their house purple, this board has nothing to say about it,” he said. “Cisterns, as well, are a wonderful idea, but we have no say in them either. This is a planning issue.”
Other people who came to the podium at the meeting had other issues to discuss. Helen Fraser, a resident of the Historic District, not only agreed with what Seibert and Fletcher were saying, but added to it with the problems of signage and bathrooms.
“We are facing acute situations, and they will become more so as the bridge opens,” she said. “The first thing I think about with Boca Grande is no signs. They destroy what we think of as small town living. I think we would start taking down signs that say public parking is available. We have public parking spaces provided by the county that are usually empty. But on the historic streets we have so many cars, sometimes you can’t get out of your driveway. People who come over the bridge for the day to go to the beach, with all their paraphernalia, and while I love to see them, these people need a place to go to the bathroom. They don’t elect to come back into town to find a place. We put up with stuff that none of you would like to hear about. It has been brought up to Bob (Green) at the Community Center, and he asked if we would like to have port-a-potties at the end of every road. I’m sure he was joking.”
As a final note to the meeting, Hammond, a history buff, stood and addressed the board and audience one final time.
“I have been listening to this, and I have to say this because this is a historic preservation board meeting,” she said. “It is not Gil-CREST, it is GIL-CHRIST. He was the governor of this state. And all who live on that street are Gilchristians.”
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