by John Szerlag, City Manager, City of Cape Coral
Cape Coral is the 10th largest city in Florida, and Forbes.com has ranked the city No. 9 on the list of “Fastest Growing Cities in 2018.” As we continue to grow, we must work to overcome several challenges of being a pre-platted community, which produces development leaning more heavily on residential. These challenges include finding opportunities for new commercial development, establishing adequate parks and recreation facilities to serve our population, and making sure we have enough irrigation water to meet the growing demand.
Due to a lack of large parcels of land, attracting new commercial development to invest in Cape Coral is a constant challenge. Cape Coral began as a land sales development of more than 100 square miles. As a result of pre-platting, where land was divided into 130,000 mostly residential parcels, less than 1 percent of all parcels in the city are 10 acres or greater in size. There was little land set aside for public facilities, parks and commercial development.
The City is trying to address this challenge by looking outside the box for opportunities. One of these opportunities is located in our South Cape CRA district in the area we identify as the Bimini Basin. The City is moving forward with plans to develop the area in partnership with the private owners of much of the property on the east and west sides of the Basin. A report from the City’s consultant provided development recommendations and was recently presented to City Council. The next step is to bring onboard a Project Facilitator to work with the landowners to move the vision forward. In the meantime, staff is finalizing the “Bimini Basin Zoning District,” which will provide the parameters for transforming this area into a major destination.
City staff also is finalizing the “Seven Islands Zoning District” to spur development of City-owned parcels in the northwest Cape. The development area is about 50 acres and is made up of seven identical “islands” connected to land along with 46 adjoining properties. The land has been appraised at more than $25 million and holds immense potential. Water, sewer and irrigation lines are being extended to the islands as part of a utility expansion project. The City will be determining the best development process to use for these properties, which could be lease, sell, public-private partnership or some combination thereof. Whatever direction we choose, I expect this project will be a game changer in the northwest part of the city.
Cape Coral has a potential buildout population of more than 400,000 residents, and parks are vitally important to establishing the quality of life in a community. The City completed a Parks Master Plan in 2016, which identified the many deficiencies we have in Cape Coral. The projects proposed in the Master Plan hold great promise for our current and future residents. But they come with a hefty price tag of almost $60 million. In addition, City Council just moved forward with plans to purchase a 175-acre old, abandoned golf course in the CRA district. The purchase price could be in the $12 million range, and once the property is acquired, the City’s Parks and Recreation Department has projected a $13.5 million development cost to construct park amenities. The City is working on options to identify a funding source to make these needed parks improvements. Parks and recreation play a key role in our quality of life, and our citizens will have to decide how important neighborhood parks, athletic fields, community parks, environmental centers and aquatic facilities are to the community.
Cape Coral has one of the largest reclaimed irrigation systems in the country. Our dual-water system takes our wastewater, treats it and pumps it back through piping to be used as irrigation. This system has enabled Cape Coral to avoid any discharges into the Caloosahatchee River from many years. Our freshwater canal system provides the majority of irrigation water and is supplemented by our reclaimed water.
There are more than 400 miles of canals in Cape Coral, and more than a third of these canals are freshwater canals. During last year’s drought, our freshwater canals dropped to critical levels. We had to implement an emergency one-day watering schedule to preserve the water supply for about 800 fire hydrants attached to the system in the 1990s.
For the past year, we have been working to secure alternative sources for irrigation water. Our efforts have been successful with an agreement with FGUA to purchase irrigation water from their North Fort Myers facility. Construction of the pipe is underway, and additional water should be available by the next dry season.
We recently finalized a two-year contract with the owner of the Southwest Aggregates mining reservoir in Charlotte County. This was the water source we were able to use on a temporary basis last year during the drought. The recently signed state budget included $1,115,000 in funding for the design and permitting of a 3.5-mile pipeline from the reservoir in south Charlotte County to the city’s freshwater canal system. Once we receive approvals from the required state agencies, we will have another source of freshwater available to keep our canals at the required levels.
We also are working on an agreement with nearby Fort Myers to send treated wastewater to Cape Coral for irrigation use. While Cape Coral has been able to eliminate discharges of treated wastewater to the river, Fort Myers dumps billions of gallons of treated effluent into the Caloosahatchee River each year. A pipeline between the two cities would improve the environment of the river and maintain our freshwater canal levels during the dry season.
As you can see, Cape Coral is working to overcome the challenges of being a pre-platted community. We expect a busy and productive year as we keep moving the city forward.