Will the Vero Council back expansion of city marina?


Soon we’ll find out if the five members of this Vero Beach City Council possess the mettle, wisdom and foresight to get past the emotion that filled their chamber last week, and make a decision they know is best for the community but won’t be popular with some of their constituents.

Soon we’ll find out if they’re leaders … or politicians.

Their still-to-be scheduled vote on Phase 1 of the proposed expansion of the city marina will be telling – because harsh criticism is sure to follow, though from only a small percentage of Vero Beach’s 17,000 residents.

The most-compelling issue during last Thursday night’s Council workshop, which dragged on for four hours as nearly 40 local residents peppered city officials with questions and comments, was a proposal to build a new dry storage facility.

City officials say the marina’s current boat barn, which was built in the 1960s and isn’t equipped to house today’s larger recreational vessels, has fallen into disrepair and needs to replaced.
No one disagrees.

There is fierce opposition, however, to the size of the proposed new dry storage facility, which critics – most of whom own homes near the marina – say is too big and doesn’t belong in a residential neighborhood.

That debate is what prompted 130 people to pack the room, where a verbal battle of ideals versus reality was fought. And, yes, there were more than a few occasions when you could feel the passion, which sometimes bordered on venom, in the air.

Curiously, though, when one resident at the podium turned to the audience and asked for a show of hands, the impromptu poll revealed only a 60-40 split against the city’s preliminary decision to favor the largest of three proposed structures.

Opponents to such development are usually more motivated and organized than their adversaries, and they turn out in far greater numbers. That didn’t happen here. The other side showed up, too.

Proponents said the need for a larger dry storage facility, along with additional dock space, is obvious, citing the county’s increasing population and the fact that many of the newcomers are or will become boaters.

The larger facility not only would allow for more boats to be stored, but also accommodate larger boats.

According to the city’s plans, a new 25,768-square-foot building would increase boat-storage capacity from 64 to 160, and it would be able to store boats as large as 35 feet long, instead of the 22-foot limit in the existing structure.

Sean Collins, the city’s marina director, said the current wait list for boat storage exceeds 30 names, and that he expects applications to reach 250 if the larger facility is built.

“I have no doubt this building will be filled up when it’s built,” he added.

A financial analysis done by Cindy Lawson, the city’s finance director, showed that building the larger storage facility would substantially increase revenues generated by the marina.

The $7.6 million project would be funded by $750,000 in grant money, a $2 million capital-improvements contribution from the city’s general fund and a low-interest, $4.8 million loan.

Factoring in the increased revenues the new facility would generate – the marina is required to contribute 6 percent of its annual profits to the city’s general fund – Lawson said the project was “sustainable.”

Also, while the expansion included in the three-phase master plan for the marina is nowhere near the maximum development allowed on the property, city officials say the dry storage building could never get any bigger.

For those wondering: The existing dry storage facility is about 7,200 square feet, but the marina property also contains an empty, city-owned office building that would be leveled to accommodate the project.

By comparison, a new 25,000-square-foot dry storage building – it would be 210 feet long, 115 feet wide and 35 feet high – might seem massive.

However, the new building would be only half the size of the Riverside Theatre and one-third the size of the Vero Beach Museum of Art, both of which operate adjacent to a residential island neighborhood.

In addition, the artist’s rendering of the new storage facility and surrounding landscape are far more attractive than what’s there now.

But that’s not what the City Council heard from the proposal’s opponents, who too often sounded as if they were desperately grasping for any reason – traffic, noise, aesthetics, neighborhood charm, pollution of the lagoon – why the city should abandon its plans.

Or at least downsize them.

Several opponents seized upon the plight of the manatees who inhabit our local waters and are struggling for survival. Some cited the lagoon’s already-poor water quality.

Other concerns cited included: the danger bigger boats would pose for rowers and kayakers; the absence of a market study to determine if additional storage was needed; the marina’s distance from an inlet; and the exclusion of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from the process.

One resident questioned the city’s ownership of a marina, saying Vero Beach shouldn’t be “in the business of providing storage for other people’s toys.”

Some of those who spoke somehow managed to inject references to Joe Biden, Jimmy Carter, Vero Electric, inflation and even a line from a movie script – “If you build it, they will come” – to warn that an expanded marina will attract more people to our community.

Yes, the Keep Vero Vero crowd was there, apparently unaware the Mayberry-by-the-Sea charm they want to preserve has been dissipating for years, particularly on the mainland.

Expanding the marina’s dry storage wouldn’t dramatically alter our way of life, nor would it have any significant impact on the health of the lagoon, which is under siege because of septic tanks and stormwater runoff.

My guess is: If the City Council approves the Phase 1 proposal, the new dry storage building will quickly blend into the local landscape, and few of us will notice.

So let’s cease the hostilities, shall we?

There’s no good reason to angrily yell at a fellow resident, “Why don’t you go to Fort Lauderdale!,” merely because he wants to buy a bigger boat and store it at our marina.

Nor should our neighbors have to “buy a house on the water” to own a boat.

This is Vero Beach. We’re supposed to be better than that.

There’s really no need to delay the start of this project, the first phase of which is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete. Given the dilapidated condition of the existing storage facility, the City Council might want to act sooner rather than later.

Even if the council approves the plan this month, city officials will have two years to further consider the second phase. Phase 3 is at least five years down the road, and public hearings would need to be held before embarking on each phase.

Maybe, eventually, something could be done at the so-called Three Corners area, which the city plans to develop into a waterfront dining, social and recreational hub.

But, unlike what some opponents have suggested, it would be silly to simply repair the existing boat barn. It would be even sillier to build a new facility in increments, and end up paying far more on the back end.

Most of us tend to brag about the quality of life we enjoy in Vero Beach, but a considerable part of what makes a community great are the amenities it provides to its residents and visitors.

In addition to the theater and art museum, we have wonderful beaches, parks, pools, athletic fields and other recreational areas. The marina is one of those amenities.

For those who don’t know: A marina has occupied that property since the 1920s, and the neighboring community developed around it.

The city marina is a venue we should be proud of, but, sadly, at present it isn’t.

This City Council, though, has an opportunity to change that – to make a difference here, to be the leaders they were elected to be, to take the first step toward making our marina as special as the community it serves.

Does the Council have the courage to make the right decision?

Soon we’ll find out.

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