by SC Publisher Shannen Hayes
In a rare occurrence, the Sanibel City Council voted 4-1 to reverse an approval by Planning Commission for a dock and boat lift at the home of Chris and Lisa Heidrick on Isabel Drive. Resolution 19-13 was brought before council Tuesday, March 3, on appeal filed on behalf of several neighbors and the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.
The Heidricks applied for two variances to construct a 3-feet-wide-by 37-feet long walkway and 4-feet-wide by 40-feet-long dock with an elevator-style boat lift extending 54.5 feet beyond the seawall. The shallow water and presence of seagrass required variances to the city’s waterward extension limit for the dock to extend beyond the seagrass habitat and the deck plank spacing requirement to allow for open-cell walkway decking.
Neighbors appealed the commission’s decision based on many assertions, including SCCF’s argument that construction of the dock would undoubtedly damage the seagrass habitat in that area. The organization’s CEO Ryan Orgera pointed out the seabed behind the Heidrick home, which is in the Altered Land Zone, is not materially different than the Bay Beach Zone.
“While SCCF is not challenging this legal delineation, we argue here that the legal and scientific delineations are incongruent,” Orgera wrote in his appeal letter. “This area for all ecological reasons is part of the Bay Beach Zone.”
Heidrick’s attorney Steve Hartsell wrote in his response to the appeals that the neighbors and SCCF cited “principals, not Land Development Code sections, to argue the variance should have been denied. What they really mean is that the LDC should be amended to prohibit any docks from extending over seagrass.”
Natural Resources staff found the proposed dock design minimized impacts to the seagrass habitat and mitigated for unavoidable effects. Director of Natural Resources Holly Milbrandt told commissioners in January that the Heidricks incorporated additional features to lessen the effect on seagrass, as well as applied standards for docks located in the Bay Beach Zone.
Chris Heidrick told the commissioners he had voluntarily done everything in his proposal to protect the seagrass habitat, including changing the type of lift to eliminate outside pilings, and made every effort to reduce the size of the dock – 42 feet of it above water – to minimize the visual impact to his neighbors.
Planning Commission voted 4-3 to approve the application with seven conditions and the resolution was unanimously adopted in February. Most of the commissioners acknowledged the difficulty of the decision, expressing rhythm and harmony of the neighborhood and the environmental issues as concerns.
The four council members who voted to reverse the commission’s decision – Mayor Kevin Ruane, Vice Mayor Mick Denham, Councilwoman Holly Smith and Councilman Richard Johnson – said commissioners did not clearly interpret and apply two of the seven standards in the variance criteria.
The same two standards Commissioner Eric Pfeifer said he felt the Heidricks’ application did not meet and cited as his reason for voting against approving the application in January. Those two standards are:
6. The requested variance will not be adverse to the developed neighborhood scheme and will not adversely affect the plan and scheme set forth in this land development code, and will not cause the proposed development to be inconsistent with the Sanibel Plan nor adverse to the health, safety and general welfare of the community.
7. The variance granted is the minimum necessary to mitigate the hardship demonstrated.
Ruane said a dock of 54.5 feet seemed excessive to him and struggled with the size as it relates to number six, the rhythm and harmony of the neighborhood. He took issue with the dock extending 24.5 feet “beyond where it needed to be” and the 30,000-pound boat lift. “I truly struggle with number seven and so many aspects of it creep into number six,” he said. “So, six and seven are not met in my opinion.”
Councilman Jason Maughan was the single vote in favor of upholding the commission’s decision. It was his opinion in “stone-cold fashion” the planning commission properly interpreted and applied the provisions of the LDC based on the evidence. He believed the commissioners had defended the laws of Sanibel.
“I do not supplant the planning commission’s judgment and take great solace in the fact that vote was reasonably close, which means this was taken seriously. It was looked at, people were heard and a decision was made,” said Maughan.
Furthermore, Heidrick contends they submitted the most thorough application in the city’s history and worked closely with the city’s professional staff for 14 months. The planning commission held a five-hour hearing and ultimately approved their plan.
“The city’s Planning and Natural Resources professionals testified in support of our plan,” said Heidrick. “The Florida DEP and the Army Corps of Engineers approved our plan. Yet, council chose to disregard all of that, Sanibel’s Land Development Code and our property rights.”