Greetings from the Gulf: Welcome to the Great Incorporation Debate

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By John Morton

Once upon a time, there was an island community that had county leaders shove a big hotel down its throats.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf only wish they had such a terrifying tale to tell.

To my friends on Fort Myers Beach, does this sound familiar?

In this month’s Siesta Sand, an initial meeting to explore incorporation, hosted by resident Mike Cosentino, is covered. He seems hell-bent on this.

For me, this tale goes beyond what’s now red-letter news on Siesta Key. It’s got some déjà vu doing some voodoo on me.

Upon being named editor several years back of a newspaper on Fort Myers Beach, I had 30 days to put together a special section that commemorated the island’s 20th anniversary of it becoming its own town. The celebration was to be held New Year’s Eve, 2015.

As my crash course began, I wondered to myself why my beloved Siesta Key was not incorporated. After all, Fort Myers Beach, which is also known as Estero Island, is 6.2 miles long and has a population of about 7,000 – many of whom are snowbirds. Those stats closely mirror Siesta Key.

Meanwhile, both are southwest Florida barrier islands and are considered big-time international tourist destinations.

Anyway, the impetus for incorporation on Fort Myers Beach, sure enough, began when Lee County vacated land that locals hoped would become a beachfront park and instead gave the green light for a high-rise hotel.

The people had enough of strangers in downtown Fort Myers making their decisions. They wanted to control their own destiny. 

Twenty-plus years later, it’s interesting to note that plenty of residents there might warn Siesta Key residents to be careful what you wish for.

They are crying for an about-face, desiring a designation of non-incorporation. That’s right, they want to once again become governed by Lee County. Just like Siesta Key is currently governed by Sarasota County.

The reasons? Many feel the local leadership can be too much of a clique and too heavy-handed in areas such as code enforcement, somewhat resembling a homeowner’s association.

And some feel it’s a tattletale free-for-all.

Can local government be too local?

For example, right or wrong, Fort Myers Beach continues to mandate masks despite no such thing coming from the county. Smart? Or overkill?

And, taxes have climbed. That would be a likely scenario for Siesta Key if it did its own thing.

Also, quite incredibly in the eyes of some, Fort Myers Beach recently approved a 254-room Margaritaville Resort that required some deviations from the existing codes. Wasn’t the avoidance of such monstrosities the whole reason for rebellion more than two decades ago?

Fast forward to what Siesta Key is facing. It’s eerily similar and a common conundrum for coastal communities. How do you preserve a place in which everyone wants a piece of the pie?

Anita Cereceda, former Fort Myers Beach mayor

Anita Cereceda was the first mayor of Fort Myers Beach, elected shortly after the Florida Legislature gave it the green light to become a town. She has subsequently been re-elected mayor twice.

When I asked her to share her thoughts on both the pros and cons of incorporation, here’s what she said:

“The fight for incorporation doesn’t end with a vote. Know that before you even start. Twenty-five years later our town still debates the issue with great fervor anytime something controversial arises.

“In my opinion, as someone who has been involved from day one, the greatest benefit is being able to make major land-use decisions at the local level. These actions impact the future of your community in a most profound way. This is also the absolute most difficult element and usually at the forefront of any debate regarding whether incorporating was a good idea. You can’t please everyone.

“Our incorporation came about because of a vote, at the county level, to build a hotel that was too big, too tall, too dense. Ultimately, the owners of that property became excellent community partners, but there are still those who scorn the day it broke ground. 

“No matter what the naysayers may claim, I think incorporation was the best decision we could have made for our community. Even though it might be rare for me to sit in a restaurant without someone telling me how much they hate a decision I made, or rare for me to not get trapped in the frozen-food aisle at Publix while a resident complains about the neighbor’s grass being too high, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Amen. And I can attest to the non-stop onslaught of what she’s gone through. As an elected official in a small town with big things going on, you become public property. One day you’re Elvis, the next day you’re Dr. Evil.

Would such be the life here for those on the council? Maybe.

What I do know is there are hundreds of talented and accomplished people living on Siesta Key. But would they trade peace of mind for a piece of the political action?

I will tell you, there have been some radicals who ran for a council seat on Fort Myers Beach, but mostly the cream of the crop found its way to the dais. I think that’s common most anywhere.

I’d say a little more than half have been retirees. They get paid roughly $17,000 annually.

And all the elections have had challengers to the incumbents.

And with that, there has been some mudslinging and dirty tactics. Still, at the end of the day, the place seems quite civil to me.

By the way, that hotel to which Cereceda referred is called DiamondHead Resort. It’s not only a good neighbor, it’s where the local gala events are held for most community groups. It’s a shining star on an island with few showcase hotels.

Could the new hotels being proposed here not play a similar role? And wouldn’t a new, upscale hotel toward the back of Old Stickney Point Road shore-up an area that’s been a bit of a hodgepodge?

As for Margaritaville, it will be built starting this summer in a high-profile area at the main entrance of Estero Island that was left dilapidated in 2004 when Hurricane Charley pounded it. It has been an eyesore for all these years.

I’ll bet it becomes another source of pride.

So, do you think Siesta Key should go for incorporation?

I suppose we should see if this idea builds any momentum. If so, prepare to be asked to sign a petition and then possibly vote on the matter.

There’s a lot to consider here. It’s hard to argue against being in charge of your own back yard, but is it sometimes easier and more effective to hire a lawn service?

Either way, the Key needs some solid stewardship in these challenging times.

“Welcome to our beach, everyone, but we kindly ask that you remove your shoes. We’re trying to keep things nice.”

That could be our mantra.

Meanwhile, my Mom just said something very profound in favor of incorporation:

“Mayor Morton has a nice ring to it.”

Oh, that’s silly. Then again, mother does know best.

(John Morton is managing editor of Siesta Sand.)

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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