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Q&A with Larry Kiker
October 11, 2017

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We sat down with District 3 Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker to get a status update on the county's goals for Fiscal Year 2017-2018 and see how it performed during Hurricane Irma.

Lessons learned from Irma. What did the county do well and what could be improved?

We had some unique issues this time. First was debris pick-up. We usually contract ahead of time for these things but this storm was so large the contractors were needed everywhere in the state. Island Park flooded for the first time in 20 years, why? We need to look at that.

The Emergency Operations Center worked very well, but I think we can justify the need to expand it over the next few years. We utilized every square foot of that space. We need to revisit our shelters, what worked well and what didn't. Communication can always be better. And looking at new technology - but I thought they did an excellent job. One of the missing pieces is the spouses of some of these people. Some managers were at the EOC 24/7. Who was taking care of their homes? Doing the preparations? The families took a pretty big hit. We should acknowledge what they did and went through.

What is one of your goals as a commissioner this year? And a goal of the county?

One is obvious, we have to revisit the storm management system. They were over capacity.

Some weirs breached, went over the top. There are some areas, like the Imperial River, where not just these events but anytime it rains or there's kind of a flood, some places are under water.

I talked to the Governor, FEMA, there are federal dollars available through the state to just buy those properties so we don't run into this again.

What it did do was it demonstrated where it could be more efficient or where it didn't work at all or where it worked very well. We need to make plans and investments to prevent from happening.

We made the Edison Farms purchase, now we have to put together a master plan, take out exotics, and restore the natural waterflows, develop the recreation component, water quality components. That will be expensive, but exciting.

Last year your plan was to do a community visioning session with San Carlos Island. What's the status with that?

The board has been really involved in incentivizing jobs. There's been some gross mistakes, like VR Labs. Some not so successful, and some successful, like Hertz. Instead of spending money to get jobs, we're looking at what can we invest in the community that would lead to companies wanting to invest there? That's what we're going to start focusing on. San Carlos Island, North Fort Myers, and any of the municipalities that invite us in, we'll work with them. In Fort Myers Beach, we're spending $80 million in infrastructure. I think that will help the local economy. In Bonita Springs, we're putting in a new library and the whole idea there is, you need four anchors in a community. It's a library, a superstore and two others, and having those induces growth. In North Fort Myers, there are a lot of abandoned buildings, so we're looking at where to invest there. It's different in every community, but it's contingent on people coming to use with ideas.

San Carlos Island will be the first to get a formalized visioning session. Even if it's been done before, it's time to do it again. I imagine we'll start this year.

Water quality talks have died down, but after Hurricane Irma the Army Corps released water into the Caloosahatchee from Lake Okeechobee. What's being done on that front?

Last year water quality was a big subject because of the way the releases were done. I think this exemplifies that we've concentrated our efforts on water quality not only when it was the thing to talk about, but we've been doing it for years before and we're continuing to look at water quality. It's always been a high priority, it was last year, it is this year, and it will be next year. I think it was an over-exercised, unfortunate event that became a political tool. People should feel comfortable that we're always had that as one of our priorities. That Edison Farms, that's a big deal. Another policy this board has been following, and this ties back into the DRGR* and different pieces of it, the new developers that are coming in, we're working with them to put large amounts of the property that they own and intend to develop into conservation, which means they pay for the property and they pay for the improvements. It's in perpetuity. It's not uncommon for large developments, 2,000 acres, to put 50 to 60 percent into conservation. I'm really proud we're able to work with them in that vein. We do allow extra density, but what we get back is huge. That's what's key, we're restoring the water flow.

*Editor's Note: DRGR, or Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource is an area of more than 80,000 acres east of the Southwest Florida International Airport and south of State Road 82 made up of wetlands, agricultural lands and limerock mines and is a part of the watershed. It was set aside for low density and groundwater protection, but it's been controversial as the county has approved housing developments within its boundaries.

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