Friends of the Bonita Estero Rail Trail, in partnership with nonprofit Trust for Public Land, is continuing their push for a 12-mile recreational biking trail spanning from northern Collier County north to Alico Road. On Wednesday, the two groups, along with the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization, attended the Bonita Springs City Council meeting for an update on the project.
The concept of acquiring the Seminole Gulf-owned rail, which has been unused for about 15 years and runs through Bonita Springs and Estero, and transforming it into a public trail gained attention in the community since Friends of the Bonita Estero Rail Trail was established in September. The group now has more than 1,500 members.
“Our goal is to have over 5,000 members by the end of the year, and we certainly are on track to do that,” Co-founder and President Deb Orton said.
The trail would become part of the statewide Shared-Use Nonmotorized Trail Program as part of the southwest corridor. The Metropolitan Planning Organization is completing a feasibility study slated to be finished and presented in March to receive funding from the state.
In Florida alone, there are more than 65 rail-to-trail projects, the first being the St. Mark’s Trail completed in 1988 in Tallahassee. The nearest completed project to Lee County is the Legacy Trail in Sarasota County, which opened last year to the public.
Project Manager Ned Baier with Volkert Engineering said the Legacy Trail is a good example of what can be accomplished in Lee County, as Sarasota County had to buy abandoned rail lines from Seminole Gulf to build its almost 20-mile trail. “[The Legacy Trail] has kind of been the prototype for us to follow and is kind of the vision we have for this project,” he said.
Charles Hines, a former Sarasota County commissioner and now director of the Florida Gulf Coast Trail with the Trust for Public Land spent more than two years negotiating a price with Seminole Gulf to acquire the railroad. Hines received a $70 million appraisal, with the corridor within Bonita Springs receiving a $28 million appraisal.
“The railroad at that time said it’s not enough. We had people in local government who said it’s way too much. So what happened at that point two and a half years ago is agree-to-disagree and step away,” Hines said. “Relationships were still there, but we just had to stop. Circumstances have changed.”
With new members of the community and newly elected officials, the Trust for Public Land reengaged with Seminole Gulf and are now working together to come up with a negotiable solution.
“Everything’s changed, I’d say, in the last few months in that we’re talking, and that’s the most important thing,” Hines said. “We will work with you all, work with Seminole Gulf, work with your community.”
If the rail is successfully acquired by Seminole Gulf and the state grants funding for the SUN Trail Program, the money would cover design and capital construction costs. However, each municipality involved would be responsible for maintenance, landscaping and amenity costs.
“Longer term, it makes some sense to have Lee County as the operator and maintainer of the trail because, ultimately, this will be a countywide project, but we don’t know when that’s going to happen,” Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Don Scott said.
The agency is confident the project will qualify for state funding considering it was successful in receiving grants for similar projects, such as the John Yarbrough Linear Park and $7 million overpass over Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers.
“The MPO has been very aggressive, supportive, and I’m sure they would have success in this project,” Baier said.
Friends of the Bonita Estero Rail Trail have successfully obtained endorsements from homeowner association communities in the area including Pelican Landing, Pelican Sound and Riverwoods Plantation. However, residents of The Vines community in Estero are reluctant to support trail plans because the design involves bisecting their gated community.
The Vines resident Diana Ackerman is in support of the linear park and recognizes the importance of adding recreational amenities to the area. However, she has numerous concerns if the public trail runs through the community.
“As much as I would like to believe that most of our trail users are just out for a recreational afternoon, I do strongly believe that this open access would allow individuals with ill intent to be on property,” Ackerman said. “This trail will literally be feet from our fairways, which provide easy access to the epicenter of our community where we have our bathrooms, water stations, stack areas, clubhouse, etc.”
Bonita Springs council member Nigel Fullick said it’s important to focus on the needs of Bonita Springs. “I appreciate the passion of the folks from Estero, but we’re the Bonita Springs City Council, so we’re going to do what’s best for our city,” Fullick said. “We’re going to work with your folks. I’ve heard nothing from Estero, I have not received any information from Estero [Village] Council that I’m aware of. So I think that’s one of those things that we’re going take into account. But at the end of the day, the only decision we’re going to make is for the city of Bonita Springs.”
With many steps still needed before a design is agreed upon, Scott foresees this project taking five years to complete if progress continues with Seminole Gulf.
“It could be faster [than five years] and there are probably ways to jumpstart it if there’s full agreement with Bonita Springs, with Seminole Gulf, the acquisition happens this year, we get state support, maybe three or four years,” Baier said. “Maybe there’s a way that local government can prompt the work and get reimbursed, there’s different creative ways to do things but to me, it’s five years. I hope I’m wrong.”