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The first public information meeting was held Monday night for the proposed site of Big Hickory Waterfront Grille & Marina in Bonita Springs, marking a new chapter for the local restaurant that has been considered a charm of the city for more than 50 years.

The restaurant, previously located on Hickory Boulevard, suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Ian. In January, owner Traci Kautzman and her husband sold the historic property to Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue Department. Kautzman was told by the city to rebuild on stilts, a multimillion-dollar project, and was given $200,000 to reconstruct in accordance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 50% rule.

Kautzman announced earlier this month that she purchased the last 5 acres of commercially zoned waterfront property on Bonita Beach, spanning over 750 feet on Bonita Beach Road. This site, which has become a $20 million project for Kautzman, is slated to be the new Big Hickory Waterfront Grille & Marina.

The property is zoned as the Bonita Beach Overlay, so Kautzman and her team will ask the city for two applications. A small-scale amendment to the city’s comprehensive plan will be requested to allow the westernmost side of the property to be rezoned from residential to commercial. The second application is to request a rezone of the entire property as mixed-use, named Hickory on the Bay Mixed-Use Planned Development.

The restaurant is proposed to comprise 14,933 square feet, including a deck area. Directly east of the restaurant will sit a 1,185-square-foot retail building, with a linear doc farther east that is estimated to hold 50 boat slips. There are two more proposed buildings that would be used as multifamily units for employees, along with office space, in addition to another building to be used as a 4,000-square-foot takeout restaurant and retail space.

Under the city’s parking code, 275 parking spaces would be required – 14 spaces per 1,000 square feet of property. Bob Mulhere, director of planning for Hole Montes, said they would try to get a reduced requirement for parking spaces by providing valet. A deviation also will be asked to allow a 25-foot setback from Bonita Beach Road for parking; the Bonita Beach Overlay requires a 30-foot setback.

Approximately 50 local residents attended the meeting Oct. 30, representing both concern and support for the project. Many concerns surrounded the environmental impact on wildlife, from removing mangroves and filling in part of the canal to increased boat traffic.

“We talk about having a beautiful view from the restaurant, but with all that boat traffic there is not going to be a beautiful view and there’s not going to be any wildlife left,” said Vicky DeMao, who lives on Gary Road, directly across the canal from the proposed project. “Another big concern is right around the corner to the bay, for you to come in is so shallow. During the winter, you have to be really careful to even get out of there.”

Sarah Hancock lives in Little Hickory Bay, west of the proposed project and across from U.S. 41. She said this project will create an even larger problem for traffic on Bonita Beach Road.

“Traffic is already a huge concern,” Hancock said. “People don’t pay attention as it is … so I can’t imagine how traffic is going to get better with this.”

Resident Bill Reach expressed support for the project, saying this type of new development is needed for the aesthetic of Bonita Beach Road.

“It is just embarrassing to go down Bonita Beach Road,” Leach said. “We have no development, we have nothing. We live in a beautiful area and everything’s dilapidated.”

East Bonita local Mike Blades agreed, saying that with the increasing number of communities and residences has come an increasing need for amenities and entertainment.

Kautzman hired ecologist Tim Hall, with Turrell, Hall and Associates, as the lead ecologist on the project. In response to the environmental concerns from residents, she said Hall will ensure that no wildlife is harmed by the construction around the mangroves and coastline. Hall is well known in Southwest Florida, currently also working with the Naples Pier restoration project.

“[Hall] wants to protect Florida wildlife so it’s an important thing that he’s part of our team, and we’re going to follow his advice and guidance to do what we need to do,” Kautzman said, adding that her motivation to rebuild in Bonita Springs comes from the support of her customer base and her 50 employees.

“It’s a 24/7 job, basically, of running a restaurant. You don’t get any time off. And my husband and I are not at a point in our lives where we need that. But we think that we did get the raw end of the deal from the city on our restaurant being closed and not allowed to rebuild, when everybody else is building on the ground floor and they’re reopened and there’s, like, nothing happened,” Kautzman said. “I don’t take well to people telling me ‘no.’ I want to challenge that a little bit. I think we were wronged, and I want to correct the wrongs.”

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