The Planning Commission’s subcommittee on Below Market Rate Housing decided, at its meeting, Oct. 23 at City Hall, against pursuing additional workforce-housing development on Airport Way. The proposal, which would have moved Community House & Resources’ expansion plans forward, was denied on the basis of an in-depth staff assessment of the property.

The Natural Resources Department’s environmental assessment of the property was crucial to the subcommittee’s decision. It showed that approximately three acres are environmentally sensitive wetlands and two and one-half acres are equally fragile uplands.

The report stipulates that the wetlands “are dominated by green buttonwood and leather fern, and the uplands are predominately tropical hardwood species.” It concludes that both the wetlands and the uplands are “ecologically important wildlife habitat.”

Speaking for Natural Resources, Environmental Biologist Holly Milbrandt explained that the importance of protecting both wetlands and uplands on the parcel does not necessarily relate to particular types of wildlife. “There is no specific animal to protect,” she said.

Milbrandt pressed the case instead for protecting “the vegetative community as a whole: seed sources and food sources for wildlife, [as well as] mature canopy trees and vegetation. [The land] was set aside as conservation, [because] there is high quality habitat there,” she said.

Concurring with Milbrandt, Senior Planner Roy Gibson added that “the entire property is in the City’s Interior Wetlands Conservation District. It is subject to wetlands conservation standards.” Gibson also noted that the existing housing density on Airport Way, at 12 units, “is an appropriate number.”

The City Engineer’s assessment, reinforcing the conclusions of Natural Resources, enumerated the challenges facing CHR, should the proposal be approved. “Any additional development of the Airport Way property will likely impact wetlands, and should wetland impacts be proposed, the new development will have to meet South Florida Water Management storm-water regulations, including design for the 25-year, 3-day storm event. Furthermore, the existing sewer service at Airport Way is extremely shallow, and any additional development will likely require the complete reconstruction of the existing lift station to accommodate a deeper sewer system,” the engineering report reads.

Although the Airport Way development was permanently halted, CHR Executive Director Melissa Rice still made a compelling case for the non-profit’s expansion needs. She cited the diverse demographic served by CHR. “We have 74 rental units and 14 owner-occupied units. Four units are in the extremely low-income category, 19 have very low income, 36 are low income, and 9 are moderate-income folks. Over this year, we served 143 individuals, including 27 children.”

Rice also reported that CHR clients include employed individuals, seniors, people with disabilities, and retirees. “We currently have 17 people on our waiting list,” she said, but last year only 12 moved out.”

Committee member Phil DeWerff extolled, pragmatically, the added value of below market rate housing for Sanibel. “Our school system’s funding is per capita,” he said. “We get money based on our students. If we didn’t have below market rate housing, we would have fewer students in our school. CHR’s housing has allowed more children to live on this island.”

Subcommittee Chair Roger Grogman outlined some special needs that BMRH could fulfill. “Single or young married couples are disqualified from [living on] this island,” he said. “Teachers would like to be a part of the program, but are eliminated because of their salaries. They make a little too much money.”

Rice proposed an expansion plan that would add 30 one-bedroom units, “so we could accommodate more individuals if we needed to.” Summarizing the need concisely, Grogman said, “We have a demand, and it leans toward one-bedroom units. How do we move forward?”

Subcommittee member Karen Storjohann proposed a collaboration between commercial enterprises and CHR, in which housing units are placed above existing Island stores. “Businesses below and residences above,” she said. “This is a common building practice in small towns, to live above the shop. You can count any number of places where that is conceivable on Periwinkle. We have to be imaginative, so that the owner of the property sees a benefit.”

CHR Board President Richard Johnson joined Storjohann in expressing appreciation for the importance of collaborations with businesses. “This has very much been a practice in years past, where residential units are above,” he said. “In Collier County, I witnessed a new development designed exactly like that. They were very desirable residential units.

There is no one single answer,” he added. “We will have to employ multiple solutions. It’s hard to attract workers to the Island. Making the trip to Sanibel on a daily basis is an obstacle.”

Johnson concluded his remarks with a specific request, “to identify locations. They don’t have to be 30 units all in one place,” he said, “but, rather, a handful here and a handful there. I look forward to working with City staff to find sites where we can physically expand the [CHR] program.”

The City’s Community Services Director Keith Williams recommended next steps to include taking an open-ended proposal for CHR expansion to the Planning Commission and/or City Council. “At this point, it doesn’t require a resolution,” he said.

Grogman concurred. “A need exists. We are accountable to achieve an incremental amount of [workforce] housing. The need will not diminish,” he said. “Our action is [to find] locations on the Island that achieve the objective of one-bedroom apartments or greater. Our role is to facilitate—and provide the pathway for that to occur.”