ESTERO, Fla. – The incorporation of Estero could create a speed bump for development in the hot south Lee market.
The Lee County Department of Community Development will continue handling projects as usual, until the new Village Council first meets on March 17.
The only exceptions would be projects where people ask for zoning variances.
“That would have to wait until the village council,” said Mary Gibbs, Lee Community Development director.
Most projects won’t be affected, Gibbs said. But the few that might be either have to work around any variances or go on hold.
Those options did not work for the developers of the proposed TownPlace Suites extended-stay hotel near Coconut Point, so they took action before the Nov. 4 incorporation vote.
“The hotel industry wants to get in and get it done now,” said Tom McLean, vice president of Hole Montes, an engineering firm hired for the project. “Time is money, and people who are investing do not like the idea of having to wait five months.”
To get going, the hotel developers held a public hearing that bypassed the Estero Community Planning Panel, a volunteer citizens group that is customarily the host for zoning waiver meetings within the boundaries of Estero.
“The folks in Estero were not very enthused or happy about it,” McLean said. “But we had to do what we had to do.”
Ultimately, the hotel developers got their variances — four stories instead of three and ten percent fewer parking spaces because they will include a sidewalk and bicycle facility — so the project is on schedule, McLean said.
Estero’s incorporation becomes official on midnight Dec. 31. The village council is expected to meet on March 17. Beyond that, the future gets hazy.
“Nothing can really happen until this mythical village council has solidified,” said Jack Lienesch, chairman of the Estero Community Planning Panel.
Estero council members will likely have a queue of projects to deal with on their first day, Lienesch said.
The village is expected to follow current rules, such as the county’s comprehensive plan, the Estero Community Plan, and the Lee Land Development Code, according to Lee Community Development officials.
The state gives the village three years to draft a new comprehensive plan and land development code — if that’s what Estero wants.
Developers should expect a smooth crossover, said Howard Levitan, vice chairman of the Estero Council of Community Leaders, which led the incorporation push.Estero is known for its exacting standards, and the village council is expected to carry the tradition.
“It’s uncertainty, even though we have told everybody it’s going to be business as usual here,” Levitan said. “We’re not anti-development. We’re pro-development. We just like high-quality development.”
In 2012, the ECCL identified 1,000 acres of remaining vacant land in Estero. The group hired Seth Harry and Associates, which completed a market study to recommend best uses for those properties.
The study found Estero has plenty of strengths: it is centrally located between Fort Myers and Naples, it is surrounded by key travel routes such as Interstate 75 and U.S. 41, and it is near economic hubs such as Florida Gulf Coast University and the airport.
The community’s downsides include its lack of a centralized downtown area, limited rental housing and retail over-zoning.
The ECCL has hosted three community workshops to discuss the findings. Don Eslick, a former chairman of the ECCL, said he and consultants have had several meetings with landowners and developers to understand what those groups would like to happen.
Two key ideas have emerged: creation of a “village center” on more than 240 acres that stretch north of Williams Road and across Corkscrew Road, and development of a “medical village” near the Bonita Springs border.
At the final public workshop held in November, planning consultant Bill Spikowski said Estero will have to decide whether it wants to keep the county zoning system.
“I think the answer is no,” Spikowski said. “But change is difficult.”
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the village council, growth will continue in Estero, said McLean.
“It’s a hiccup,” McLean said. “A five-month hiccup.”