After hurricane, Florida beach resort tries to put even more people in jeopardy

Lee County tells a tall tale about rebuilding ‘resiliency,’ but hits a wall of opposition

June 29, 2023 7:00 am

South Seas Resort on Captiva Island, via the South Seas Resort.

This is a tall tale. It’s not about Paul Bunyan, John Henry or Pecos Bill, but a tall tale of the Florida kind.

Nine months ago, when Hurricane Ian clobbered Southwest Florida, one of the places that suffered serious damage was the South Seas Resort on Captiva Island. The resort was battered so badly that it has yet to reopen. Even in places that are still standing, the storm damaged the roof, letting rain pour in, spurring the spread of mold.

People like to visit Captiva because it’s a remarkably lovely place, with broad, sandy beaches and plenty of seashells for gathering. Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s many shell-collecting visits to Captiva inspired her best-selling 1955 book “Gift From The Sea”

But Mrs. Lindbergh stayed at the quaint ‘Tween Waters Inn. She was never at the South Seas, a more ritzy waterfront resort that dates back to 1942, when it was called “South Seas Plantation.” Despite that lengthy pedigree, South Seas has a new set of owners who acquired the 330-acre property in October 2021.

Talk about bad timing! Imagine you’re that trio of corporate partners: Timbers Resort Company, Wheelock Street Capital and the Ronto Group. You just spent more than $50 million to buy a swanky property on a gorgeous beach which is part hotel, part time-share and part condominiums.

Then Ian shows up less than a year later and slams it around like Barbie’s Dream House being stomped on by Godzilla.

While working to rebuild the resort, the owners decided to make a few changes – changes that led to a tense showdown last week with an angry crowd that packed a Lee County Commission meeting.

James Evans of the Sanibel- Captiva Conservation Foundation, via the foundation.

“They had this all lined up,” James Evans, CEO of The Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, told me this week.

South Seas’ owners wanted to build their buildings higher (hence my “tall tale” reference) and to increase the overall density of the site. According to Evans, the changes they were proposing would allow them to build the resort as much as 75 feet high and to have an unlimited density.

“This would greatly impact the character of Captiva,” he said.

However, the South Seas owners made one mistake.

“They did not give any notification to the community,” said Lisa Riordan, president of the Captiva Civic Association.

Because this is the summer, when a lot of snowbirds have gone north, the resort’s owners may have expected to avoid opposition. They certainly didn’t expect to hear a chorus of boos from every single civic and environmental group in the vicinity.

That’s not to mention all 12 condo owners’ associations within South Seas – who, like everyone else on Captiva, had been blindsided by what the resort’s owners had in mind.

Ken Suarez, via screengrab from the Lee County Commission meeting.

“We were not made aware of this at all,” Ken Suarez, who chairs the presidents’ council of all the associations, told the commissioners last week.

I called Suarez, a Florida native, and asked why South Seas’ owners thought keeping their plans a secret was a smart idea.

“They were secretive because they knew they were going to face blowback,” Suarez, a former South Seas employee, told me. “I think they knew it was going to be a problem. I don’t think they knew how big of a problem it would be.”

Lee the Loser

Lee County is not named after Harper Lee, Bruce Lee, Stan Lee, Ang Lee, Brenda Lee, Spike Lee, Michelle Lee. Christopher Lee, Peggy Lee, Geddy Lee, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Stagger Lee, Lee Marvin, Lee Majors or even Lee Van Cleef of “The Good, the Bad and the Ug-lee.”

Instead, it’s named for America’s most famous loser, Robert E. Lee, even though the Confederate general never set foot there. I’ve often wondered: Why would you name your county after a guy who was foolish enough to go to war against his own nation? And who, four years later and one ruined South later, had to wave the white flag?

Apparently there were protests when the naming happened in 1887, but the protesters were ignored. I’d tell you more, but Gov. Ron “I Love the Worst Confederate General” DeSantis might try to cancel me.

Anyway, I blame the Loser Lee connection for Lee County’s attempt to please the owners of a place that used to have the word “plantation” in its name.

County officials claimed that they were the source of the proposed changes to the development code on Captiva. It was, they said, part of their “resiliency” effort in rebuilding the barrier islands after Ian laid waste to the place.

That’s how they could avoid holding a public hearing on Captiva in advance of voting on a land development code change on Captiva, Evans told me. A loophole in the county rules says that if the county proposes changes instead of a developer, there’s no requirement for a public hearing on Captiva prior to the vote.

Lisa Riordan of the Captiva Civic Association, via the association.

“They described it as a county-initiated project,” Riordan agreed. She also agreed that no one believed the commissioners making that claim.

In a preliminary county meeting held in Fort Myers, she told me, the assistant county attorney kept using such tell-tale phrases as “South Seas wants” and “South Seas needs” and “South Seas has asked for this.”

That made it clear to people who was really in the driver’s seat.

That Lee officials would attempt to finagle a controversial development request is no surprise. After all, this is the county that allowed so much development on its barrier islands that the evacuation time in the coastal high hazard area as of last year was 96 hours – four days! – instead of the legally required 16 hours.

I’m sure that frenzy of overbuilding has absolutely nothing to do with fact that, as the Fort Myers News-Press reported in 2020, “three of the last five elected Lee County commissioners garnered at least 40 percent of their campaign contributions from people or companies involved in the growth and development industry.” (Note to editor: Please print that last sentence in a particularly sarcastic font).

Then, when Hurricane Ian was headed their way last fall, Lee officials waited to issue a mandatory evacuation order for coastal areas until 7 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27 — a little more than 24 hours before landfall. Is it any wonder, then, that Ian racked up more fatalities in Lee County – 72 – than in any other county in Florida?

You might think Lee officials would learn from that debacle and be more cautious about any rebuilding they allow in the storm-damaged areas. The South Seas Planta – er, excuse me, Resort — proposal shows how wrong you’d be to think that.

But everyone else in Lee County sure seems to get it.

World class

I tried to get some comment from the owners of South Seas, but apparently they were busy drawing up plans to build a replica of the Seattle Space Needle on their property.

Greg Spencer of Timber Resorts, co-owners of South Seas, via screengrab from the Lee County Commission meeting.

It’s too bad I didn’t get a call back, because Timbers Resorts CEO Greg Spencer is a Florida native. He was born in Orlando and graduated from Florida State. He even persuaded his company to relocate its headquarters from Colorado to Winter Park. I think I could talk to him, as one Florida native to another, and say, “Buddy, what the heck were you thinking?”

He’s not shy, apparently. When the Lee County Commission faced a roomful of angry constituents last week, the first person they called on to speak was Spencer.

He first complained about all the “confusion, misinformation and misunderstanding” floating around. Then he denied planning to build anything that would be 75 feet tall, or seeking unlimited density, although he didn’t deny asking for the rules change that would allow so much leeway.

And he said, in several different ways, that “our vision is to build an updated, world-class property that seamlessly fits within our world-class community.”

Somehow he never got around to apologizing for keeping everyone in that “world-class community” out of the loop. And he never said what exactly he DID want to build.

Fortunately, a reporter for a publication called Gulfshore Business pinned him down just before the meeting.

“Spencer said he seeks to build a three-story hotel instead of the current two stories and have perhaps 175 rooms instead of the current 107,” the story said. “Building fewer than 170 hotel rooms would make financing the rebuild extremely difficult, he said.”

In other words, in the wake of a Category 4 storm, he is indeed seeking to make the resort taller and with a greater density. That means a lot more people will be in harm’s way the next time a hurricane hits. Sounds to me more like “world-class idiocy.”

CIA retirees, corrupt commissioners

After Spencer sat down, the next person to speak was Richard Johnson, the mayor of Sanibel, the island adjacent to Captiva.

Sanibel has a long history of trying to avoid the development mistakes that had been made on other barrier islands. This dates back to 1974, when a trio of ex-CIA agents who’d retired there led efforts to incorporate the town. One of them even became the first mayor.

Meanwhile three of the Lee County commissioners who had opposed the Sanibel incorporation were busted for, among other things, taking a boat ride with prostitutes, courtesy of the county’s sewer contractor. Florida history is so fascinating, isn’t it?

Sanibel and Captiva share a road – the only road that leads back to the mainland. That means an increase in density on Captiva hurts hurricane evacuation plans on Sanibel.

“We should have been involved before this,” Johnson told the commissioners. He also noted that making evacuation times from the barrier islands worse “is not resiliency.”

Then came a different Johnson: Callie Johnson, whose family owns the stores on both Sanibel (Bailey’s General Store) and Captiva (The Island Store) where everyone shopped prior to the hurricane. Although boosting the number of people at South Seas would benefit her financially, she told commissioners she still opposed what the resort had in mind.

“I’m not willing to sell my soul for a profit,” she explained.

Plenty of other folks spoke. The real showstopper, though, was Suarez, the homeowners’ association council president. When he revealed that South Seas had hidden its intentions even from people who live on-site, everyone was stunned.

Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens

Suarez told me that he’d been meeting with Spencer on a regular basis after the hurricane, but that every time he asked what the resort’s owners planned to do, all he got was a cloud of generalities. He learned the truth when the county commission agenda included the item about Captiva changes.

“When this issue came up, it was a shock to us,” he said.

His group of homeowners’ associations does not include South Seas’ time-share owners. But he said they’re just as outraged. He called the reaction “a real firestorm.” .

Suarez, who hails from Tampa, started out as a bellhop at the resort in 1988 and over 13 years worked his way up to director of room operations. He even met his wife there – she was an employee too.

“I know a lot about the resort,” he told me. “That resort was developed and built to be a low-density tropical paradise. People who buy there know that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

He said he’s much more concerned about South Seas trying to boost its density than he is about the increase in height. An increase would hurt not only evacuation times but also sewage treatment, water supply and road congestion. And he suggested that 175 hotels rooms is only the start of the resort’s expansion plans.

He’s met with three of the county commissioners to talk to them about what’s going on. So far, he said, he and Spencer have yet to have another sit-down.

Retreating like Lee

Although the Lee County commissioners had been scheduled to vote on the South Seas changes last week, they chose to emulate Gen. Lee’s most successful tactical maneuver and retreat.

They postponed the decision until September, a time when all the snowbirds will have flown home. And they promised to involve the Captiva community more fully in discussing what to do with South Seas.

Only one of the county commissioners – the one representing Sanibel and Captiva – indicated that he planned to vote against what South Seas wanted. He said that he knew he’d be in the minority. I don’t know if that will change by September, but it might.

I have visited Sanibel and Captiva islands a few times. I proposed to my wife at The Bubble Room. We’ve stayed at the ‘Tween Waters and taken our kids swimming and shelling at Captiva beaches. When I see pictures of the extensive hurricane damage, my stomach hurts and my heart aches.

If I lived there, I don’t know if I would want to rebuild at all, knowing it could all be wiped away again. Rebuilding bigger in the same spot that was flattened before seems about as smart as signing up for the maiden voyage of the Titan 2 undersea submersible .

FORT MYERS FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 29: Frankie Romulus (L) and Kendrick Romulus stand outside of their apartment next to a boat that floated into their apartment complex when Hurricane Ian passed through the area on September 29, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As the climate grows warmer and the sea level rises around the Florida peninsula, some people have begun talking about a once-unthinkable concept called “managed retreat.” As Gen. Lee could tell you, it’s better to retreat than face defeat.

Instead of rebuilding in hazardous spots, managed retreat says we should encourage people to carefully back away from building near the shoreline. Better to build where it’s safe than to risk losing your life and property again and again.

I don’t know if that’s a solution that should be considered for South Seas, which was a major employer on Captiva. But I do know that that’s a decision South Seas can’t make alone.

The owners need to reach out to Suarez and everyone else who turned out for the commission meeting and involve them in the discussion. After all, the next time a hurricane threatens Lee County, they’ll all be together anyway — trying to flee on that one road to the mainland.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.