TO: Local Planning Agency

FROM: Bill Spikowski

DATE:  February 11, 1997

SUBJECT: Trend Toward Commercialization at Fort Myers Beach



One of the critical land-use issue that we decided to consider this winter has been called the "creeping commercialization" of Fort Myers Beach. This term reflects the fear that commercial development will continue to expand into previously residential areas, and also a perception that more commercial development may occur at Fort Myers Beach than is needed to serve the peak capacity of residents and visitors.

In some communities, even the rental of dwellings is considered to be a form of commercial use. Given the resort nature of Fort Myers Beach, however, this discussion will focus on retail, office, restaurant, and entertainment uses. Such activities take place at Times Square and in modern shopping centers; and also in single-tenant ground-level buildings, converted homes, and multistory buildings such as resort hotels.



In Lee County (including Fort Myers Beach), new commercial development can take place only when it is on land that is properly zoned and when the proposed development is consistent with the comprehensive plan. The "plan consistency" requirement was added in 1984 in an (as yet uncompleted) effort to resolve decades of overly generous zoning decisions throughout the county. This effort has led to the unfortunate interim situation where a parcel may be zoned for wide variety of commercial uses but whose use in fact is significantly restricted by the comprehensive plan. This uncertainty seems to confuse landowners, prospective purchasers, and adjoining owners almost equally, and was much of the basis for the protracted litigation over the Diamondhead project.

At present, the comprehensive plan designates privately owned land at Fort Myers Beach into one of two categories: "Suburban" or "Urban Community." Very little land is now zoned commercially in the "Suburban" category; and no land there may be rezoned for further commercial uses (see Policy 18.2.1).

Land in the "Urban Community" category includes most of the existing commercial and mixed-use zoning. Two special restrictions apply in that category: even for existing commercial zoning, "commercial development shall not expand or intrude into residential neighborhoods"; and any commercial rezonings must use the negotiated "Commercial Planned Development" zoning district (also in Policy 18.2.1).

Most of the commercially zoned land at Fort Myers Beach is in the C-1 zoning district. This district allows all residential uses and many commercial uses as well. This mixed-use character isn't inherently wrong, and in fact is coming back into favor in many places throughout the country. However, in an environment where most other zoning categories allow only a single type of land uses (residential, or commercial, or industrial) and where there is only limited control of the intensity of permitted uses, the C-1 district has caused a great deal of difficulty.

Before designing a better system than is currently in use, the town needs to decide on its planning goals for future commercial development. The following discussion suggests such a direction.



Despite the intensity of disputes over proposed commercial development at Fort Myers Beach, there seems to be considerable consensus on several major points:

  1. The present concentration of commercial uses in the "Times Square" area is good for Fort Myers Beach. Despite the severe congestion during the peak season and a general seediness that had been developing, Times Square provides an urban beach environment that does not exist elsewhere in Lee County, and which cannot be duplicated anywhere because of today's floodplain regulations. The recent CRA improvements have sparked a renewed interest in Times Square among most islanders, and should spur a healthy redevelopment movement to upgrade existing buildings.
  2. The Villa Santini area serves as a very different kind of commercial center for the south end of the island, one that is equally important for seasonal guests and for permanent residents. The Villa Santini Plaza itself functions as an important gathering place despite its unfriendly shopping-center design. Given the central location and unfragmented ownership, it is important that this area retain its commercial functions. But the next generation of buildings there should integrate other uses and be designed to establish a unique physical identity for the south end of the island.
  3. Commercial uses at other locations, especially those providing everyday neighborhood conveniences, are valuable in reducing traffic congestion, but many businesses are in unattractive standardized buildings that detract from their neighborhoods. This is partly a result of the economies of standardization, as well as local regulations that don't adequately address the physical context in which commercial uses occur.
  4. Widespread commercial expansions will not be needed because the local population will soon be reaching its maximum level. Peak-season congestion from the existing level of guests and residents, plus day-visitors to Fort Myers Beach, is already extreme. This congestion severely limits the potential for commercial attractions that would bring an additional increment of visitors during the peak season (although the island could accommodate additional visitors during non-peak periods).
  5. Given the aging buildings that currently house many commercial uses, substantial redevelopment should be anticipated, and can be encouraged or required to take place in ways that will improve the community. A critical task of the Town over the coming year will be to evaluate the potential (and also the limits) of a focused redevelopment plan that specifically addresses commercial uses.



If a consensus does exist on these observations, the next step is to begin formulating the concepts which would underlie your new comprehensive plan as it applies to future commercial development. Based on the LPA's work to date, including the recent community design workshop, the following concepts seem to be emerging:

We should discuss these ideas, and any others you would like to offer, at your meeting on February 18. The format and precise wording of the policies and any maps aren't important at this time, but your reactions to these concepts are needed before the consulting team proceeds further.