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Meant for Each Other

For the thousands who live there, Pelican Bay, just north of the Naples city line, really is a sort of paradise. Picture elegant houses and stately high-rises, manicured landscaping, scads of social groups, entertainment and activities, and uncrowded beaches along the jade and turquoise Gulf waters-just for you and your closest friends. But picture-perfect as this paradise is, all is not peaceful in Pelican Bay. Its leaders are waging a battle to break away from Collier County to become a part of the City of Naples, a move that could affect not only the privileged denizens of this community but the shape of local politics for years to come. And as in any divorce that involves a new partner, emotions are running high, as issues of money, power and property are sparking fear and resentment along with dewy-eyed hope for the future.

It's hard to find a Pelican Bay resident who doesn't gush about the place. "I love Pelican Bay," says Jeannie Davis. She's had a home there since 1981 and moved there full-time nine years ago, Davis explains, as she waits for her tennis partners. "The tennis is wonderful, and the beach and the people are great."

"We like everything-the beauty, the berm, the beaches, the flowers. The maintenance is top-notch," says Philip Westley, a 10-year resident who moved from the City of Naples.

Collier County has more than its share of luxury communities, but Pelican Bay is unique in several ways. First, its size. Stretching from Vanderbilt Beach Road south to Seagate Drive and east to Tamiami Trail, Pelican Bay includes more than 2,100 acres along the Gulf of Mexico and 72 separate communities. Second, it's the home of places that, for many, define Naples: the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, the Waterside Shops, the Registry Resort, the Ritz-Carlton. Third, it boasts nearly three miles of beaches that are largely private because, for the most part, they can be reached only by crossing private Pelican Bay property.

A fourth point that distinguishes Pelican Bay: Bay Colony, one of the most expensive and exclusive of Naples' many expensive, exclusive communities.

Of course, any property in Pelican Bay is pricey. A recent check shows that the lowest price listed for Pelican Bay property outside of Bay Colony was $425,000 for a two-bedroom condo. It was about 1,400 square feet and "needed to be totally redone," says Emily K. Bua, a sales agent for Premier Properties of Southwest Florida Inc., who handles a lot of properties there. On the upper end, about $4 million would buy a penthouse in one of the newer high-rises.

But Bay Colony is in a class of its own. Homes are strung directly along the beachfront without the mangroves that block views elsewhere; and denizens-who include high-powered executives, a number of founders of the ├╝ber-exclusive Naples Winter Wine Festival and a sprinkling of celebrities, from Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson to TV's Judge Judy-enjoy their own tennis and beach clubs, a restaurant overlooking the Gulf, concierge service and many other luxuries. Here, says Bua, the lowest-listed property is around $900,000; and prices can run as high as $30 million for a beach-front single-family home. "That would compare directly to a large home in Port Royal on the beach," she says. "Bay Colony is definitely one of the most exclusive areas in Naples."

Pelican bay, a planned unit development (PUD), was hatched just over 25 years ago by Westinghouse Corporation, which eventually became WCI Communities, Inc. It includes 6,977 homes-single-family, villas, mid- and high-rises-most of them represented by the 72 separate homeowners associations, and all under the umbrella of the master association, The Pelican Bay Foundation, Inc. Everyone who buys property in Pelican Bay-including the Waterside Shops, the Phil, and other commercial properties-automatically becomes an assessments-paying member of the foundation, says foundation president and chief operating officer Kyle Kinney.

No more than about 25 percent of Pelican Bay's estimated 14,000 residents are full-time, he says, although many fly back for summer weekends, when tee times and restaurant reservations are easily secured. Kinney describes the community as "very active, well-educated, savvy, very Midwest and very much representative of Fortune 500 [executives]-a lot of self-made people who have done very well." Many residents, even those in their 40s and 50s, are retired, although others continue to run businesses.

In addition to the foundation (which is run by a board of resident volunteers elected by property owners), the Pelican Bay Services Division (PBSD) keeps the community operating. Guided by an advisory committee of residents appointed by the Collier County Board of County Commissioners, PBSD tends to public landscaping, street maintenance and lighting, and storm-water management, all paid for by residents through a Municipal Service Taxing Benefit Unit (MSTBU). PBSD works with the MSTBU Advisory Committee and the Pelican Bay Property Owners Association, a voluntary organization with about 3,000 members, which helps identify projects.

Residents pay $987 yearly per household ($598 without cable), which covers replacement of common-area assets such as kitchen equipment and beach trams, as well as operating costs. With a budget of about $6 million and a peak-season staff of 180, the foundation oversees recreational and social amenities, including a new 25,000-square-foot community center, now under construction, two Gulf-front restaurants (in addition to Bay Colony's restaurant) for Pelican Bay residents and their guests, and trams, oversized golf carts that transport residents and visitors along boardwalks through the mangroves to the beach.

"To have Gulf access, tram service, two tennis centers, a community center, covenant enforcement and beach restaurants for $598 a year is pretty remarkable," says Kinney.

As he talks, he drives a golf cart along the berm, which runs from the south end of Pelican Bay northward almost to Bay Colony. It separates the mangroves and wetlands from the tidy landscaping rimming the buildings and roadways.

What had started as a chilly morning has turned into a bright, warm winter day, and the berm bustles with joggers, strollers and trams. Birds in great variety, including a wood stork and a lone, colorful roseate spoonbill, feed busily in the adjacent salt marsh. Egrets, ibis and herons are unperturbed by passers-by, but cackling moorhens scoot away as the cart approaches.

Two boardwalks lead from the berm to two separate beach access points. People relax at the restaurants and bars overlooking the water, but a slight chill off the Gulf makes sunbathers scarce. Typically in season, all the beach chairs-complimentary-are snapped up before noon, says Kinney.

Pelican Bay boasts an extensive calendar of events, activities and clubs, from popular exercise classes on the beach to a 1,000-member-strong Women's League to a coffee club that draws some 300 men weekly to socialize and hear speakers.

A prime location sets the community apart, says Kinney. "Its environment is extremely unique. In some golf course communities, you can find some nice walking trails; but I don't think you can put yourself in a 500-acre mangrove preserve area and be in that environment, and 30 seconds later you're relaxing in a beach chair on the Gulf of Mexico."

But in a community filled with corporate executives, not everybody spends all day relaxing in beach chairs, and control is not easily relinquished. In the last few years, many Pelican Bay residents have started to chafe at being part of the county, which they charge often overlooks their interests. Pelican Bay, they argue, has much more in common with nearby Naples neighborhoods like Park Shore or Port Royal than it does with far-off Collier communities like Golden Gate or Ave Maria. About a year ago, a delegation met with Naples Mayor Bill Barnett to explore the possibility of being annexed by the city. Barnett says, "I'm not campaigning for or against it," but he notes that the city and Pelican Bay "are all part and parcel" of one continuous area of pretty green space and upscale shops and amenities. In fact, he adds, "If you asked most Pelican Bay residents where they live, they'd say, 'Naples, Florida,' and they wouldn't know they couldn't vote for me in an election."

"The county is rapidly growing, and all the emphasis is on growth to the east," says Kinney. "With that, less of the coastal community tax base is going to be spent on coastal communities. It makes sense to align ourselves with coastal communities, because we have the same concerns."

And Pelican Bay's tax base is hefty-$4.2 billion, as compared to $12 billion for the City of Naples and $51.2 billion for the entire county. That's enough to perk up the interest of city officials-and to pique the resentment of county officials, who would be losing not only a major contributor to revenues but their most prestigious neighborhood as well.

This isn't the first time Pelican Bay residents have suggested becoming part of Naples. In the past decade or so, Pelican Bay has looked into incorporation as well as annexation, but previous attempts have failed to gain momentum. Helping to fuel it this time are strained relations on two issues in particular: Cap d'Antibes and beach access.

Cap d'Antibes, a proposed project by the Gulf Bay Group of Companies, which has built a number of Pelican Bay's high-rises, is the final high-rise planned there. Many residents are up in arms about the building, which they say is outsized and was slipped through the approval process by county officials. Gulf Bay's plan is for two high-rises connected by a four-story structure, creating a building 650 feet across-frequently described as more than the length of two football fields. Although Pelican Bay Boulevard is lined with one imposing high-rise after another, critics say the project is out of character with the others, which are single towers. "It absolutely doesn't belong in Pelican Bay-or anywhere on the west coast," says John D'Aquanno, a retired banker from Pennsylvania who has lived in Pelican Bay for 13 years. "It's going to be a monstrosity."

They're also upset that the county approved it without a public hearing. The county's position is that staff reviewed the site development plan, and it complied with all existing regulations. Since the developers were not requesting any variances, and site development plans don't need approval by the Board of County Commissioners, a public hearing wasn't called for.

A flurry of lawsuits has resulted-the foundation and some individual residents are suing the developer and the county, and the developer is suing the foundation and some residents. However they are resolved, the controversy has left many in Pelican Bay dissatisfied with a government that would allow such a development in the first place.

"I haven't been unhappy with county services or taxes; but I was very disconcerted that this thing got in, kind of like in the dark of night. From that aspect alone, I would think annexation would make sense to the maintenance of the ambience we have," says Philip Westley a retired stockbroker and former Naples resident. "From a political point of view, it would make sense joining with the City of Naples to have more of an effect as the power structure of the county moves east."

Perhaps even touchier is the beach issue. While the county's coastal areas are mostly built out, all those people moving to eastern Collier County want to enjoy the beach. But Pelican Bay residents paid a premium for their beach access, and they're loath to see it encroached upon.

"The only reason I prefer to be annexed is I don't like the idea of the county trying to take over the beachfront," says Addie Castaldo, as her tennis partners agree. "I came here specifically for two reasons: the beach and the tennis."

And therein lies a conflict, says County Commissioner Tom Henning, who represents District 3, a central section of the county that doesn't include Naples or Pelican Bay. "They have a private beach, and they want to keep it a private beach. The county is looking for ways to provide beach access for all," he explains.

When Pelican Bay was created, the developer deeded access at the north and south points to the county. North is Vanderbilt Beach, where the county recently negotiated with WCI for the right to build a three-level parking garage to accommodate more beach-goers. ("That was never supposed to happen," says D'Aquanno, citing WCI's original agreement with the community.) The county has been negotiating with the foundation for a similar arrangement at the south end, the Clam Pass parking lot by the Registry. "The Registry and the county share a boardwalk that takes residents down to the beach," says county manager Jim Mudd. "What we're trying to do is increase parking availability so more people can use the beach."

(In Florida, the public owns the beach below the high-tide land, or the wet sand; and the dry sand belongs to whoever owns the land abutting it. Technically, there are no private beaches in the state; but if there's no way to get to the beach without trespassing on private land, the public is effectively barred. )

Clam Pass is a barrier to anyone who wants to walk north along the Pelican Bay beachfront. "Some people in the county would like to have beach access through the main area of Pelican Bay," says Mudd. "There's about a two-mile strip of beach that nobody has a way to get to unless it's by boat." A mangrove forest of close to 500 acres lies between much of the beach and the community's homes. After it developed Pelican Bay, WCI gave that land to the county-to avoid paying taxes on it, says Mudd. In an online commentary last June, county commissioner Frank Halas noted that the public has no access to its own land there-"a situation that is illegal under the Florida statutes." And though he conceded "it would be foolish" for the county to do anything that would damage prop-erty values in Pelican Bay, he warned, "It would be foolish for Pelican Bay to assume that, at a time of increasing pressure on public resources, access to this public parcel would remain sacrosanct."

That's hardly reassuring to property owners who fear the county may some day seize their private access. Yet according to some county officials, residents shouldn't hope for different treatment from the city, which prides itself on having a lot of public beach access. But city officials say they do allow some communities to have private beach access. "There are a lot of private properties that don't have the same access availability as, say the Old Naples section of city," says Naples city manager Robert E. Lee. "Some parts of the city-Port Royal, Park Shore-have hardly any beach-access points. That would be similar to Pelican Bay."

Some people have written letters asking the city to force Pelican Bay to open its beaches to the public if it is annexed; but Mayor Barnett says, "That's absurd." Just as the city allowed Park Shore to retain its private access after it was annexed, he says, it understands that Pelican Bay residents value their access. "The city will give them a guarantee that we have no intention of changing that," he promises.

Not so fast, says council member Penny Taylor, who believes that some residents of Naples are concerned that an annexed Pelican Bay could end up dominating city decisions and politics. "I would not be in favor of guaranteeing them anything," she says. "We have tremendous pressure on our beach access already, and I'm not sure of the future."

That's all beside the point, says Mudd. Whether or not the city annexes Pelican Bay, "the county will still own the land that abuts the beach, and the public doesn't have a way to get there. Annexation does not solve the beach issue-it will just become a City of Naples issue."

Key to the annexation question is whether Pelican Bay would have more control of its future as part of the City of Naples.

"I think it's going to come down to a political decision," agrees Lee.

Pelican Bay voters currently get to choose one county commissioner; but as part of the City of Naples, they would also vote for all Naples council members. And arguably, with a balance of power in the city, Pelican Bay could also have some weight in that county commission district.

Of Pelican Bay's nearly 7,000 homes and estimated 14,000 residents, slightly more than 5,200 residents are registered to vote in Collier County. Naples has about 14,000 registered voters.

"Is it that Pelican Bay is annexing into the city, or is it that Pelican Bay wants the city to annex into Pelican Bay?" muses commissioner Henning. "If you really think about it, with 20,000 residents in the City of Naples and it's built out, and over 14,000 in Pelican Bay and they're still building, who's annexing who?" And, he asks, what happens to the old conservative voice in the City of Naples? In Pelican Bay, you have business people and CEOs. "I think they have different agendas," Henning says.

"That is way off," says Barnett. "They don't clash-they are like-minded." Retired CEOs, working professionals in the city and the old guard all share the same concerns, he says. "They care about their amenities and they care about their lifestyle. They want to preserve what they have." If he's right, the annexation would create a big voting bloc that's likely to support conservation, managed growth and maintaining top-quality amenities and atmosphere, which could play a powerful role in the future of the region.

If the marriage would give pelican bay a bigger voice, it would give Naples more revenue, a bigger tax base and something else it wants: more territory. "The county's growing and growing, and we're getting smaller and smaller," says Barnett. Not surprisingly, the city has been receptive to the advances from its big, well-heeled suitor. It has already completed the requisite Urban Services Report, which outlines how water, trash, police protection and other municipal services would be delivered to Pelican Bay. The community's residents would be relieved of some taxes and expenses and assume others, resulting in some savings. The City of Naples would initially face some losses-primarily due to compensating the North Naples Fire District-but that would change after about four years.

The city proposes that the county continue many of the services it already provides, including drinking water, sewer and reclaimed water for irrigation. The city would assume police protection, solid waste, road maintenance, street lighting and so on.

County officials aren't happy about some of those assumptions. For example, other parts of the county are clamoring for reclaimed water, says Mudd, so it would be hard to justify supplying it to city residents, especially when the city has its own reclaimed water program. In February, the board of commissioners underlined that message to Pelican Bay by reaffirming its right to refuse to provide reclaimed water to incorporated communities within the county. "If it's annexed, we don't sell water to it," says Mudd.

And that's not all it could mean, he adds. As things stand now, he explains, creating a new beach access in the middle of Pelican Bay "doesn't make a lot of sense because there's no place to park. But if they are annexed, and the county is no longer providing reclaimed water, there is a 12-acre service area right smack in the middle of their golf course that will no longer be needed for water treatment circulation. That's an opportunity that doesn't exist now."

That's a powerful warning shot, and the specter of a public parking lot for beachgoers right in the center of Pelican Bay could scare many residents away from annexation. But not everyone agrees the county has the right to shut off that reclaimed water. Pelican Bay's attorney, Madeline Ebelini, has told commissioners it's the county's legal responsibility to provide water and sewer service.

"It should be about those being served, not whether it's best for one government or another," says Lee. Plus, the county will continue receiving payment from Pelican Bay for those services.

"The City of Naples makes up about 7 percent of the population, but pays about 24 percent of taxes to Collier," says Lee. "The City of Naples and Pelican Bay would be paying in the neighborhood of 32 percent of the county's taxes, just in those two areas. They would continue to pay that even with annexation." But they wouldn't be paying into the unincorporated general fund, which foots the bill for things that benefit all county residents, including parks and libraries. The county would lose about $3.4 million annually toward those projects, says Mudd.

As for complaints that coastal areas pay more in taxes than they receive, Henning responds that rural areas also make contributions, such as lands for everyone else to dump their trash, sources of water for the region, and workers that serve the needs of the more affluent communities.

As much as some county officials may bridle at the idea of Pelican Bay leaving their embrace, the county has no say in the annexation. Pelican Bay property owners and registered voters, as well as Naples voters, will have the final word. Because fewer than 70 percent of Pelican Bay's residents are registered to vote locally, law requires that the owners of at least half of the property there must certify that they want the issue to go to a public vote. If that happens, then City Council votes whether to hold a referendum, so the community's registered voters can decide whether they want to be part of the City of Naples. In addition, Naples voters will also vote on whether to annex the community.

No timeline is in place, says Lee. A special election could be scheduled. Or, as Barnett has suggested, the vote might wait until the next general election in February 2006.

Retired banker D'Aquanno says he and other residents will need that much time."There are so many unknowns," he says. "We need to know the total picture on the costs, and to make sure our landscaping and amenities are kept up the way they are now-or even improved."

Tennis friends Addie Castaldo and Marion Green are among the part-time Pelican Bay residents who won't get to vote in the main election-a source of aggravation because they'd like to see the annexation go through.

"We're afraid of the county not caring about us," says Castaldo. "We're only a small portion of the county and we have no say. That's what annoys me."

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