280 Vanderbilt Beach Rd. , Naples
NAPLES — Should Collier County spend tourist tax money on legal fees to defend its plans to build bathrooms and a concession stand at Vanderbilt Beach?
The county's Tourist Development Council says no. On Wednesday, the council — an advisory board to county commissioners — voted nearly unanimously to recommend against tapping up to $30,000 in tourist tax dollars to fight a legal challenge brought by a group of county residents who oppose the project.
County Commissioner Tom Henning, who sits on the Tourist Development Council, questioned the cost of the legal fees and the legality of using the tourist tax to pay them.
The tax is a 4 percent charge on all hotel stays and other vacation rentals.
Henning said nowhere could he find any case law or opinion that supported spending the bed tax on legal fees. He emphasized that state law says the tax can be used to finance the construction of beach improvements and to maintain, renourish and restore beaches.
Also, before any tax money can be spent on a beach-related project there must be a finding that it promotes tourism. Other members of the council questioned how spending the money on legal fees would attract more tourists.
Rick Medwedeff, general manager of Marco Island Marriott Beach Resort, Golf Club & Spa and a council member, made a motion to deny the funding. It was seconded by fellow member, Robert Miller, who wanted to hear more about the legal case.
It will be up to county commissioners to make the final decision about using tourist tax money to pay the legal bills.
County staff has recommended using the tax to help cover the cost of using two expert witnesses to assist in the defense of the legal challenge. The experts are expected to spend as much as 40 hours a piece on the case.
In a memo to the deputy county attorney, Colleen Greene, an assistant county attorney, cited an opinion by the Attorney General's Office that suggested county commissioners have the discretion to decide "whether a particular facility or project, tourist development plan or program is tourist related and furthers such primary purpose" based on facts, findings and "prevailing local conditions and needs." She said staff's recommendation to spend the tourist tax dollars on legal fees will likely go to county commissioners for a vote on April 24.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is also a defendant in the legal challenge. The department approved a variance that would allow the project to be built closer to the beach than the state's setback rules allow.
A decision on the case will be made at a state administrative hearing, unless it can be settled.
The administrative hearing is tentatively set for July. Opponents hope to overturn the DEP's initial approval of the permit for the controversial beach project.
The planned project is estimated to cost $1.2 million. It includes a 3,800-square-foot elevated beachfront building with an observation deck 30 feet above the beach at the end of Vanderbilt Beach Drive. The size of the project is one of the biggest complaints among opponents.
At the Tourist Development Council meeting, Kathy Robbins, a spokeswoman for the North Naples Community Alliance, one of several groups fighting the project, said the county needs to consider an alternative.
"It's like we only have one design here and that's it," she said.
She said nearby businesses are already struggling, including a small pizzeria that would have to compete with the new concession stand.
"There's one alternative I've never seen, just bathrooms," Robbins said.
Some council members suggested there might be a compromise that could get the county out of litigation. But Commissioner Henning cautioned against discussing the legal case at the council meeting.
Greene, the assistant county attorney, agreed, suggesting that any talk of a settlement should happen between the opposing attorneys or before the board of county commissioners in a "shade session" out of the public eye.
Robbins criticized the county's Coastal Zone Management Department, which manages beach projects, for not considering opponents' objections or seeking alternatives. Gary McAlpin, the department's director, said his staff has been both courteous and understanding.
"We are carrying out the direction of the board of county commissioners as best we can," he said. "I just wanted to put that on the table."
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden