A price of paradise
Cape Coral evolved from a very simple — and very marketable — premise: Provide the amenities that will draw families and retirees and a thriving community will come to be.
That vision, fostered in the ’50s by a couple of hair care products manufacturers/would be developers, turned a tract of waterfront used to run cattle and hunt for game into what now is the largest city between Tampa and Miami — and well on its way to becoming, perhaps, the largest city in the state.
Because we, those who live or do business in Cape Coral, love it here.
Most of the time.
This is not one of those times, at least not for the estimated 8,400 property owners in the northeast Cape who have received, or will receive early next year, their notice of pending assessments from the city for the next wave of its utility expansion project.
For you see, back in Florida’s land development heydays, the requirements for infrastructure were pretty much limited to access to the lots developers were selling those families and retirees looking for their piece of the American Dream.
Raw land was hacked up into four lots to the acre, roads were hastily paved and those parcels were sold worldwide from development central. In the case of the Cape, that first was around the area of the Cape Coral Yacht Club and, later, the then-hinterlands of some-day development.
Well, some-day development came to the Cape in waves of south-to-north growth. And each step of the way since the city’s incorporation has come with pain to property owners who have found themselves, sector by sector, required to pay for “their share” of the city utilities that were not part of the developer-provided infrastructure.
The downside of buying in a pre-platted community like Cape Coral where land was carved mostly into small residential lots, is that sooner or later, no matter the rural or suburban feel of the neighborhood, your street is going to need city amenities like centralized water and sewer services.
Here in the Cape, that has never come cheap.
To the shock of many a newcomer pleased with the price of their new home or lot, in Florida, utilities owned by government entities can and do charge private property owners for bringing public utilities into their neighborhoods.
What’s more, there is literally no cap on these assessments or what may be computed in the costs.
For property owners within the city’s latest phase, North 1 West, the tab is $33,367 to $35,931 per 10,000-square-foot parcel built upon or not.
Why so high?
Since the queue of residents who spent 90 minutes asking Cape Coral City Council and city staff that question Wednesday night to little avail, let us provide some basics.
The UEP assessments in Cape Coral are “so high” for a number of reasons, the primary being that the city’s construction method of choice — of choice — includes the rebuilding of roads within the expansion areas.
The second, is that a decade or so ago, the city decided to front-load its impact fees into each project’s assessments at the start instead as when an affected parcel actually hooks up to the utility system. This means both components come due at once — the property owner’s share of the cost of the pipes going in the ground and that related infrastructure, as well as for the property’s share for water and sewer plant capacity whether the services are actually needed or not. For a vacant lot, that “capacity spot” may be years down the road. Or never.
In North 1, a $249.6 million project, that impact fee, called a Capacity Facility Expansion Charge, is $6,750 of the total tally property owners will either pay now or through their tax bills for up to 30 years.
We understand why the city reconstructs its roads as part of the utility expansion process as either way property owners pay. The alternative to combining a road component with utility expansion likely would be something like what the city of North Port does — an annual road and drainage assessment on every parcel into, well, perpetuity.
The latter, charging the impact fee up front?
We opposed its implementation as it increased the financial impact on property owners well before any impact to the city’s utility system. It might not have saved anyone any money over the long run but it did spread out the obligation to cough up the funds.
These are general reasons why the UEP costs are what they are in Cape Coral.
Let us add a third reason, unique to North 1 West and soon, North 1 East: The city, which felt it bit off a bit too much by designing and bidding all of North 2 in one chunk, decided to split North 1 into two phases.
The benefit of splitting the project was less road disruption and resultant resident complaints as seen throughout North 2. The downside, of course, is the loss of the savings that comes from economies of scale. Simply put, larger projects cost proportionally less because you can save substantially on material and other costs.
Two recent cases in point:
The city plans to break ground on the Lake Kennedy Racquet Center today. Originally planned at $8.7 million for 16 pickleball and six tennis courts in the first phase, with 16 additional pickleball courts to be added later, the city discovered it could get those additional 16 pickleball courts — plus six more tennis courts — with lighting and covered seating, for $2 million more by opting to build the entire project at once.
Lee County, meanwhile, opted in February to construct two totally new spans to replace the 60-year-old Cape Coral Bridge, each to feature three traffic lanes as well as bike and breakdown lanes. The cheaper alternative was to rebuild only the westbound lanes and widen the parallel eastbound lanes.
The new $219 million bridge will cost an estimated $20 million more than waiting to replace the second span but will offer a much longer traffic life — 75 years as compared 35, saving beaucoup bucks in the long run.
So yes, there is that and the balance of bigger and cheaper or smaller and more manageable certainly is something for Council to weigh again going forward.
As for postponing the project for a “better time?”
To those feeling this burden, we’re sorry.
But we agree with Council on this one.
The last time — the only time, to the best of our knowledge — Council bowed to public pleas was back in the real estate bust years.
Waiting added another million in re-design costs.
And property owners saved not a dime.
We’ll not tout the benefits of any added property value that comes with the addition of city utility services.
Increased valuation is only a benefit if and when you sell.
Otherwise it’s just a higher number on your tax bill, which likely will include that extra UEP assessment and interest.
What we will say is yes, this kind of sticker shock is reason indeed for Cape families and retirees to flinch.
Unfortunately, though, it’s a continuing cost of calling Cape Coral — Florida’s original “waterfront wonderland” home.
— Breeze editorial