October 1, 2014
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Immokalee: Whose Values Count?

Behind the battle over a plan to improve living conditions in Immokalee

A rundown trailer park in Immokalee is emblematic of the issues facing the community after the defeat of the master plan.

A rundown trailer park in Immokalee is emblematic of the issues facing the community after the defeat of the master plan.

Jim Freeman

Magda Ayala pulls into one of Immokalee’s residential neighborhoods and pauses in front of a lot cluttered with buildings the size of tool sheds. They are homes, she says. Rental properties.

“It’s unfathomable to think we have housing like this in this age,” she says, letting her car idle there for a moment so the image seeps in. “This is the kind of thing we were hoping the master plan would address.”

Immokalee residents, business owners, social service providers and county representatives spent the better part of the past decade crafting a new comprehensive plan to tackle everything from housing conditions to economic development to land use to road improvements.

“We have a trailer on Main Street,” Ayala says a few minutes later, pointing out the thoroughfare’s many incongruities—an insurance agency, a homeless shelter, a church, a charter school, a thriving Hispanic market, a boarded-up grocery and the trailer park. “That’s what we wanted to address.”

People like Ayala, a lifelong Immokalean, thought the master plan represented a blueprint for the future—respecting of agricultural roots but pushing toward a more diversified tomorrow. Proponents said the plan would strengthen business growth and stamp out things like shacks-for-rent, tenement-like apartments and falling-down trailers. Lofty goals, but not everyone regarded the plan as being quite so noble. A group of prominent residents worried that, in the rush to reshape the community, the interests of existing businesses were being ignored and the character of the community disregarded.

“They are trying to make this like Fifth Avenue, and it’s not,” says Jerry Blocker, whose family has one of the largest landholdings in Immokalee and who was the plaintiff in a lawsuit that ultimately contributed to the master plan’s demise.

It’s been almost two years since the $500,000 planning process came to a screeching halt after a newly formed majority block of the Collier County Board of Commissioners voted to settle with the Blocker family and then voted down the master plan. And the issues the plan hoped to solve in Immokalee have only intensified. Commissioners have spent countless sessions in the past six months grappling for solutions for substandard housing, haphazard zoning and the general direction of growth in the community of 25,000. This falls on top of the social service challenges facing any area with high poverty rates and low levels of educational attainment, both of which plague Immokalee’s population.

Immokalee is in the midst of a slow evolution from farm town to something broader. Newly released data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show there were 13,000 fewer acres being farmed in Collier County in 2012 than in 2007, and a subsequent drop in farmworkers hired. More migrant families show an interest in establishing permanent residences.

Meanwhile, the arrival of Arthrex in eastern Collier and the development of Immokalee’s technical training center, iTech, signal the potential for new kinds of jobs and training. The Seminole casino is adding a hotel, promising more work opportunities—and more tourists looking for something to do when they aren’t gambling. Walmart is looking to build a shopping center that will bring both jobs and convenience to the community.

And with the development of Ave Maria just up the road, Immokalee needs to double its efforts to woo busi nesses and the kind of middle-class residents it wants to diversify the community. If there were ever a time to have a coherent, defined strategy for growth, it’s now. Instead there are as many questions as answers. If the master plan, which had 67 percent of residents’ votes, failed not only to get a necessary 4-1 super-majority commission vote but even a simple majority, will the Walmart bid get trounced, too? What about other businesses? Will they see the upheaval and hightail it out of town?

“No matter how much you want something to stay the same, it’s gonna change,” says Anne Goodnight, a longtime

Immokalee activist who previously served as a county commissioner and school board member.

Or—if you consider this issue through an entirely different lens—did Immokalee win itself a chance to rethink its goals and reconsider how they affect existing infrastructure?

“There was a lot of anxiety in the community with landowners and citizens not understanding what the plans were,” says Commissioner Tim Nance, who represents Immokalee and ousted master plan proponent Jim Coletta in the 2012 election. He objected to the plan for reasons including its extensive reach and the way its authors did not offer side-by-side comparisons showing the old plan versus the proposed one. “It turned into a monstrosity.”

Nance doesn’t see Immokalee at a standstill but on the cusp of tremendous growth—in tourism, industry and infrastructure. He toes a careful line—acknowledging the need for economic diversification and improved living conditions, nodding to the concerns of landowners but also speculating on their wariness of change. Mostly, he hopes all sides will come to the table.

He’s not alone.

“If we took ourselves out of the equation and look at what is best for the community, then the community will move forward,” says Michael Facundo, chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

He’s right in spirit, of course, but what’s best is a tremendously loaded idea.

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Nonprofits offer better living conditions for many workers in Immokalee, but those housing options come with restrictions some don't want to live with.

Despite happily releasing the strains of elected life, Jim Coletta hasn’t let everything go. “It was the biggest disappointment of my political career,” he says of the master plan’s failure. He pushed for Immokalee to redo its original 1991 plan, which he and other leaders considered too outdated to be doing much good.

County leaders swept through Immokalee in the early 2000s, suddenly aware of, and interested in, Immokalee’s dirty little secret: substandard housing.

“What (landlords) were doing to maximize their profits was to subdivide them with pieces of plywood,” Coletta says. “(Renters) would have to move each piece of plywood to get out.”

The trailers were insect- and rodent-infested and rented, in some cases, for hundreds of dollars per week, the fee split among the farmworkers who crowded into them to divide the cost. A fire in 2007 claimed the lives of five people and injured five others. It was ruled an arson, but the flammability of the trailer’s materials and the lack of exits contributed to the tragedy. Owner Cleveland Blocker settled with the victims and their families.

“It was terrible,” Coletta recalls of housing conditions. “No one did anything about it.”

The county took a multifaceted approach: They’d scrap the really bad trailers and offer landlords in so-called “nonconforming parks” the opportunity to do a Site Improvement Plan, enhancing the properties and satisfying county regulators. They’d establish a Community Redevelopment Agency to remove blight and upgrade Immokalee. And they’d recommend rewriting the master plan, addressing not only housing but also a whole spectrum of issues important to a community’s development—a scope that detractors would later call unrealistic.

It was around that time that a small trailer park behind the farmers market was placed in the county’s crosshairs.

Jerry and Kimberlea Blocker bought the park in 2001. Whether they didn’t do their due diligence, whether real estate agents or the county didn’t explain the place’s zoning, whether they simply bought a “lemon,” isn’t entirely clear. In 2006, the zoning department informed the Blockers they were renting housing in an industrial zone.

The park’s neighbors include an automobile junk yard, a chemical plant, the farmers market and, a little farther out, a couple of packing houses.

The Blockers protested the county’s crackdown, suing for the right to operate the property as it was, regardless of the industrial classification—the way their predecessor had done. (That owner had been “grandfathered” into the zoning because the county switched the area’s designation after she’d bought it. Commissioner Georgia Hiller said in an email the Blockers were included in that grandfathering action.)

The Blockers didn’t back down even when judges ruled in the county’s favor. Final votes for the master plan (which had passed on its first go-round) were delayed while commissioners waited for the lawsuit’s conclusion. Critics accused the Blockers of stalling while the 2012 election approached and the campaigns of prospective commissioners strengthened.

Coletta lost his commission seat. Nance joined Hiller and Tom Henning in instructing the county to settle with the Blockers rather than risk losing in court. The family received a $540,000 settlement.

Nance agrees the Blockers’ park isn’t ideally situated. Nor is the park on Main Street. But forcing parks under through zoning violation fees—the Blockers amassed nearly $1 million in fines—isn’t the way to govern, he says. He’d rather see the land use changed and the parks phased out over time in ways that don’t curtail free enterprise.

“We have to treat these people in a civilized, productive fashion,” he says. Others, though, have a much different take. “Know the right people, and you can do anything you please,” Commissioner Donna Fiala says.

The master plan, which under state growth management rules needed to pass by at least four votes, didn’t even get a simple majority, with only Fiala and Fred Coyle voting in favor. Following that, Penny Philippi, who ran Community Redevelopment Agency, saw her contract rescinded and replaced with a one-year oral contract that could be terminated with 30 days’ notice. She quit and then filed suit against the county. The CRA is now under an interim director, and some commissioners recently signaled that its authority ought to be shifted under the county manager’s auspices and, with a nod to master plan opponents, its community advisory board reconfigured.

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Magda Ayala is one of many advocates working to improve conditions throughtout the community.

The man at the center of this whole thing is cordial over the phone, although understandably a little defensive. Jerry Blocker is quick to point out that his trailers pass health and safety inspections, and says the nature of his family’s furniture business has sometimes given him a bad rap.

“When you don’t make your payments, you get repossessed,” he says. “When you are in a smaller town like this, people hold grudges. If you are 6, 8, 10 years old and you see your parents’ furniture get repossessed by the Blockers, well, you are not going to like the Blockers,” he says.

He’s got people who’ll attest to his housing management. They include Fred Thomas, who headed the advisory board drafting the master plan until he got disheartened by the county’s treatment of the Blockers and quit. The trailers were not unsafe, Thomas says. “They were all nicely kept.”

Since the lawsuit’s settlement and the master plan’s defeat, Immokaleans are wondering if the Blockers and their supporters have cemented a majority vote on the commission and whether they will scuttle other initiatives. Why, Blocker asks, would a business owner want to limit growth and development?

“The more progress we have in this town, the better,” Blocker says. “It would be nonsense for us to limit growth.”

The question is, grow how?

“Anybody would like to see a high-end downtown, but the thing is there’s not enough people to support these businesses,” Blocker says.

At the very heart of it lies the question of vested property rights, says Pam Brown, a lifelong Immokalean and landlord. If you build a bypass that diverts traffic around pedestrian-heavy Main Street—something proposed as part of the master plan—you might have benefitted the pedestrians, immigrant families who don’t drive, but what about the business owners who want the traffic flow, she asks.

“We were supposed to go along with that?” she asks. “Well, what about the businesses that were in there?”

Or, consider the design standards imposed on the Main Street area that some business owners are now fighting. They object to policies regulating the kinds of businesses allowed on Main Street, architectural standards imposed on businesses, and related rules they deem costly and limiting to existing companies.

“A lot of the changes no one had a problem with,” Blocker says. “But the design standards and a lot of the language just didn’t make sense for our community.”

“I believe in fairness,” Brown adds. “I think all of us want to see each other prosper.”

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Two years into her job as executive director of Immokalee Housing and Family Services (IHFS), Susan Golden is still trying to figure out Immokalee—a place that’s defied any rhyme or reason when it comes to zoning and development.

“You’ve got somebody with a playground in the back for their kids and then you’ve got these dilapidated, decrepit trailers right next door,” she muses. “Where is code enforcement?”

The families who rent from her organization typically earn less than $20,000 a year, and are always on the cusp of financial catastrophe. She’d just watched two families move out of one of her complexes because of money woes and knows of five others about to leave another.

It’s a common scenario, and the kind of issue that drives families back to the kind of housing that organizations like IHFS are trying to get them out of. Lack of documentation is another—the illegal workers can’t rent in most developments, so they’re relegated to the trailers where no one asks questions as long as the rent is paid.

“Some will cram 10 of those guys in a trailer and charge (each one) $100 a week, and they’re not going to complain,” Golden says.

Lisa Lefkow, the executive vice president at Habitat for Humanity, shares those concerns.

“Look at this,” she says one afternoon at her East Naples office, pointing to a photograph. It depicts a little girl staring at the camera, standing in a dark, dilapidated apartment. Her mattress is slung on top of a half-wall separating the bathroom from the sleeping/living area. Her parents pull it down at night. That’s how some Immokalee residents live, she says.

Housing matters in so many ways, says Maria Jimenez, a lifelong Immokalee resident who grew up with three siblings and a single mother in a cramped trailer. She and her husband, Eric, had worked their way out of poverty and bought a house in Lehigh but then fell victim to the recession. They ended up back in Maria’s childhood trailer. They have two children—a 2-year-old daughter and a teenage son. Maria is grateful her son is in school; she tries to keep her daughter out of the trailer as much as possible until bedtime.

In Lehigh, her creativity came out in dance, in song, in arts and crafts, in baking projects.

“We can’t be as articulate as we are,”

she says of her current living condition.

“The song is gone from me.”

Luckily, the Jimenezes will become the latest of hundreds of Immokalee families in a Habitat for Humanity house this fall.

The master plan in and of itself wouldn’t have fixed the housing issues, Lefkow and Golden say. Shut down the derelict trailers, and you’ll end up with people on the streets. Force changes on the landlords, and you run into issues of property rights, fair compensation and free enterprise. You’ve got to acknowledge, too, that some residents choose the trailers over nonprofit housing complexes, which impose various rules to maintain living standards. And the landlords aren’t always the bad guys; many of Immokalee’s worst trailers aren’t in the permitted and inspected mobile home parks but are privately owned.

Nevertheless, housing advocates say the plan at least put in writing the county’s commitment to eliminate substandard housing.

“Obviously, we are moving along with the status quo, which, in my book and in the eyes of many, is just not acceptable,” Lefkow says.

A new proposal emerged out of the county commission in May: Bring something akin to the old Site Improvement Plans back to the table. Nance saw the plans as a way to incentivize landlords to improve their properties—and the assurance that county officials would let them keep operating their parks. After the Blocker case, he says, landlords stopped investing, assuming the county was going to force them under.

Hiller says she wants improvements, too, but her emphasis is on the units themselves, not the land they sit on. “What we want to do is incentivize them to make these properties the best they can possibly be,” she told the board during its May 27 meeting.

At that meeting, Donna Fiala asked a mobile home park owner if he knew how much it cost to rent a trailer. He did, but he wasn’t going to divulge it.

“Everyone likes to say you can’t take this low-income housing away. Where will these people go? Well, how much is that low-income housing? Is it really affordable?” Fiala questioned after the meeting.

She wants improvement, but she doesn’t want her board to get too soft.

“What does that make people think about when they have no grass, no parking lot, no street—just dirt roads,” Fiala muses. “What does that make them think of themselves?”

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You can see housing as a humanitarian issue and that’ll touch a certain number of residents. Or you can see it as an economic issue, and that’s where more ears start to perk up.

Because the big question in Immokalee right now is one of development. Can you lure new businesses when portions of your Main Street have tired facades or dark windows? Will they come if they see rickety trailers? Flophouses?

“If we don’t go ahead and start cleaning this place up, Immokalee doesn’t go anywhere,” says Floyd Crews, a business owner and member of the CRA advisory board. “I think whoever owns them trailers ought to go live in them.”

There’s a fine line, though, between cleaning up and changing the community’s character, says Fred Thomas, formerly of the CRA advisory board and the man who ran the housing authority for some 20 years. He offers a driving tour to show what he means: Here’s a street where the owner of an apartment complex built a nice middle-class home opposite his clearly low-end rentals; here’s a handsome two-story house on a big, shady lot adjacent to a junkyard. The junkyard was there first.

Thomas thinks Immokalee’s best economic bet lies in tourism—the casino, the racetrack, Lake Trafford, the ethnic restaurants and shops. That doesn’t mean you have to gentrify it. It’s not Naples.

“I don’t want to change Immokalee. Immokalee is great as it is, but you have to appreciate it,” he says.

But forget all that for a minute, Crews suggests. When he’s asked what Immokalee needs now, he doesn’t even have to pause to think: “Immokalee is not going anywhere until we get a four-lane road here. There ain’t no two ways about it.”

The only ways into Immokalee are two-laned S.R. 82 from Fort Myers, Immokalee Road from Naples and S.R. 29 from the inland communities to the north. People who’d supported the proposed master plan think its defeat has hampered growth. The plan would have eliminated portions of the zoning and approval process that businesses now have to undergo.

“It would have expedited the process for Walmart by about a year,” says Facundo, the CRA advisory board chair.

The Walmart plan, if approved, is designated for a piece of vacant land by the intersection of New Market Road and S.R. 29. There are lots of people anxious to see it built—everyone from the farmworkers who pay people to drive them to Naples or Lehigh to the middle-class residents who don’t want to drive that far to shop. Facundo admits he and his wife do most of their shopping in south Fort Myers because the products they prefer aren’t available in Immokalee.

“I’m taking Collier County tax money and spending it in Lee,” he says. Defeat the master plan, and most residents will shrug and go on. Defeat Walmart and you’ll have a revolt, Goodnight predicts.

“The master plan won’t affect me personally, but listen to me. I drive 35 miles to get to Walmart. That’s my pocketbook,” she says. Tamper with family budgets and “there’s gonna be hell to pay.”

Blocker says he’s not trying to bar Walmart, but he acknowledges his concerns. His family rents property to many small-business owners. If Immokalee doesn’t attract more permanent residents, there won’t be enough people to support both a Walmart and existing shops.

Dorin Oxender directs iTech, the 5-year-old technical training center run by the Collier County School District that serves as a new source of community pride in Immokalee. He’s among those who think the master plan’s defeat doesn’t spell the end of Immokalee’s progress. Too much is going on, he says.

“I think the future is really bright for Immokalee. I think the feeling is that the master plan being defeated will in no way stop the forward movement of the town,” he says, ticking off a list of upcoming changes: the Walmart, the Seminole’s hotel, Arthrex, restaurants like Subway moving in, the opening of a new community plaza—the Zocalo—on Main Street.

“It’s just aggravating,” says Magda Ayala, who agrees the community is moving forward—though not at the rate she would have hoped. “You go through this whole process, and the people who are supposed to be taking care of you aren’t.”

But they are, Nance says. He believes Immokaleans can expect to see county leaders and the CRA board work to amend the existing master plan, to delve into the things that would most benefit Immokalee but not overhaul the whole place all at once. He lists of some of the efforts: to develop the industrial land around the airport, already zoned for industrial use, already cemented with a free-trade zone; to create a loop road east of New Market Road that will divert commercial traffic away from Main Street but not in the extensive way of the bypass that had raised concerns; to work with the state to improve S.R. 29 and pave the way for industry like the Walmart.

“If we show some unity, I think the board of county commissioners will approve it,” Facundo says.

He senses the acrimony—in the community, on the commission.

“But we can’t dwell on it,” he says. “Let’s move forward.”

 

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