Veterans Park Expansion and Other Recreational Needs in Lehigh Acres

-- Executive Summary --


Origin of This Study

Lee County had an opportunity to purchase a 51-acre tract adjoining Veterans Park in Lehigh Acres in late 1995. Local residents, through their CRA advisory committee, suggested expanding Veterans Park onto this site along with a new library, recreation center, and sheriff's substation. The original impetus for this study was a need to evaluate potential uses for this tract along with feasible funding sources. Since Lee County also needed to explore how its new "core services" policy would affect the future expansion of parks and libraries, the study was structured to include this task also.

Growth in Lehigh Acres

Lehigh Acres is one of the largest lot-sales communities in Florida, with a maximum population as large as Cape Coral. Initial development began in the mid-1950s, with most of the community now platted into single building lots that have been sold around the world.

In Florida, large-scale platted communities are initially populated with an influx of northern retirees. As they grow, they usually develop the balanced age and social characteristics of their region. By 1990, Lehigh Acres was following this pattern, with its population combining the characteristics of a retirement community and a traditional "hometown."

Housing costs in Lehigh Acres are among the lowest in Lee County, reflecting the abundance of vacant single-family lots and the modest homes already built for retirees. This factor, combined with a high-and-dry inland location, will lead to continued strong population growth. Since the original developer did not set aside land for future parks and libraries, a plan must be developed to retrofit the original land-use scheme to accommodate the community that is actually developing.

Parks and Libraries in Lee County

The Lee County government provides community parks and libraries for all of its unincorporated area. Numeric standards in the "Lee Plan" guide the distribution of these facilities in accordance with expected growth patterns. This planning process is undergoing a transition as Lee County struggles to adjust to a period of almost stable property values, following a decade of increases that automatically enhanced the tax base.

This transition has led to a "core services" policy that is replacing the previous expansive vision of county government. The new policy is to establish a base or core level of services that can be provided to all parts of the county, and to let individual communities wanting a higher level of services to pay for the increased costs. Some municipal services would no longer be provided at all by Lee County; others will be contracted out, or reduced in scope to reflect the public's new mood of fiscal realism.

The core services policy has been implemented for many existing services such as ballfield maintenance, senior centers, and library hours. But it has not yet been expanded into a methodology for determining how new facilities will be planned to keep pace with growth. Nor has the county established a convenient method for individual communities to explore raising taxes for specific services that are desired there. Both of these are required to fully implement the core services concept.

In this study, existing levels of service in Lehigh Acres are compared against county-wide levels and the levels found in the Lee Plan. The county's official computation of developed park acreage in Lehigh Acres shows a surplus over the official standard, but the surplus is largely a result of the use of obsolete population data. With corrected data, a small surplus still exists, but it will be overtaken by growth by 1998. Indoor recreation centers are provided in abundance in Lehigh Acres and east Lee County, with service levels higher than today's levels elsewhere in Lee County and much higher than the officially adopted levels. Library space in Lehigh Acres is provided at a slightly lesser level than the county average; with the growth levels expected, almost twice the current library space will be needed in Lehigh Acres by the year 2005.

Although several library expansions will open this year, Lee County has cancelled or deferred further expansion plans. The county's previous plan to create a system of larger regional-scale libraries in place of the current branch system is on hold because of uncertain funding for construction and operation. This delay gives the public a chance to evaluate whether large research-oriented regional libraries are more important to them than the convenience of smaller but more numerous branch libraries. Also, a new tool is presented in this study, maps that portray the location of the current and forecasted population through the year 2020. These maps now allow Lee County to base site selections on this critical geographic information.

Expansion at Veterans Park

The county's recent acquisition of the key tract adjoining Veterans Park and the Lehigh Middle School provides the opportunity to master plan what can become a recreational and civic hub in central Lehigh Acres. The accessibility of this site has been improved with the county's recent completion of a sidewalk/bike path from the business district to the park's entrance. This study includes an artist's conception of the park's main entrance and a conceptual master plan for the entire park site that takes advantage of all existing improvements and short- and long-term park needs.

Long-term needs include space for a complex of civic buildings that can share parking and drainage improvements; recreational facilities to keep pace with growth; and natural areas suitable for passive activities such as picnicking. Short-term needs include ballfields to relieve the extreme crowding at Lehigh's other park; soccer fields to replace the existing fields that may be lost when the middle school is expanded in the next few years; and a site for a new sheriff's substation.

Cost estimates are provided for both construction and operation of the potential park expansion, with an evaluation its potential effects on taxpayers. With this information, Lehigh Acres residents can better assess their recreational needs and enhance their ability to persuade their fellow citizens to make this plan a reality.

Financing Opportunities

Lee County has experimented with various means of allowing local communities to pay for services beyond the "core level." Many of these methods are discussed in this report so that their wider applicability can be better evaluated. This study also explores the feasibility of other methods of expanding recreational facilities, including better use of facilities at public schools; increasing impact fees; using C.R.A. funds; land-banking park sites for future use; using dedicated millages; incorporating as an independent city; establishing special taxes for specific geographic areas; relying on private organizations for recreational needs; and selling existing facilities that are on valuable commercial sites. Many of these methods have potential, although there are a variety of impediments to each.

Summary of Major Recommendations

Specific recommendations are provided in this study to help Lee County implement its core services policy and to assist public-spirited Lehigh Acres residents in improving their community:

  • A master plan has been prepared for the future expansion of Veterans Park. This plan is flexible enough to respond to needs and opportunities as they arise, but coherent enough that the various facilities can function well and develop into a major civic centerpiece of Lehigh Acres.
  • Numerical core service levels need to be adopted into the Lee Plan to replace obsolete standards that call for increasing levels of parks and libraries county-wide. Once the new standards are prepared, local communities will know what they can expect from Lee County and what they would have to provide on their own initiative (through increased user fees or a special tax for this improved service). Preliminary suggestions are provided for core service levels for parks and libraries.
  • Impact fees are being collected to help build new facilities such as parks that are required by growth. The formulas used to determine the fee levels are based on Lee County's adopted standards and the actual costs to build those facilities. These calculations need to be updated to reflect the new core service levels and cost data from the 1990s.
  • Lee County needs to reevaluate its funding process for libraries. A library impact fee has been proposed but never adopted. A separate library millage appears on all tax bills, allowing a convenient adjustment to the level of library service if that is desired by the entire community. But very little public discussion on these matters takes place during the critical stages of the budget process, effectively keeping the public out of these important decisions.
  • Before library expansions resume, the wisdom of replacing the Lehigh Acres and Riverdale branch libraries with the proposed regional library next to the high school should be debated publicly. A regional library can offer greatly improved research facilities and other special services. But when it is located a considerable distance from the centers of population, many people will dispute whether the gains are worth the inconveniences. The detailed population forecasts that are used for planning the county's future road network can now be used to make the difficult decisions on where to locate future facilities, allowing them to be placed where they can conveniently serve the greatest number of people (including future as well as current residents). Regional libraries are appropriate when they can be situated in the midst of major population centers, but may not be desirable when they will force the closing of well-located branch libraries.

    Spikowski Planning Associates

    1617 Hendry Street, Suite 416

    Fort Myers, Florida 33901

    (239) 334-8866


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