If you pay attention when driving around town, you will notice a lot of differences when you’re on the West side of I-75 versus when you’re driving on the East side of I-75. For simplicity, we’ll call the West side Fort Myers. When there, you can’t help but see lots of restaurants, shopping malls, movie theaters, parks, medical offices, and some pretty good landscaping in and around the roads. When on the East side, you see few restaurants, few shopping malls, no movie theaters, few parks, and few medical offices. You also notice insane traffic, few police, weeds, and garbage, and it just feels well, chaotic. There’s a reason for that.
The East Lee area has tried unsuccessfully in the past to elevate itself from being “unincorporated” to having a formal government. “Unincorporated” basically means you get to pay the same amount of taxes to Lee County as everyone else, but you receive fewer benefits than other “incorporated” areas. Why is that? Well, we have elected County Commissioners that largely only think of Fort Myers. Also, the majority of Commissioners represent the West side, so the two from the East side, even if they did strongly advocate for us, will always be outnumbered.
But all is not lost. In 2008, the last time incorporation was tried, 42% of people voted for it. 2008 was a truly bad time for East Lee. Vacant houses were everywhere, and home prices were sinking to amazingly low levels. It is hard to imagine now, but it was not unheard of to buy a three-bedroom, two-bath, 1800-square-foot home then for $50,000. When this happens, the property taxes go down because the values of the houses are down. That means the government has far less money to spend. Consider what we are going through now – that very same home could easily sell for $300,000. Back in 2008, a study was conducted to see if incorporation made financial sense based on the tax income the new government would bring in. 42% of people back then thought the numbers looked good. In the fifteen years since, our property values have gone up roughly 600% – that $50,000 home is now worth $300,000, after all. Also, consider that we’ve added at least 50,000 people to the local population. Clearly, the numbers add up now and are very, very promising.
One other thing to consider is how the overall community feels about this topic. This week, I met with a gentleman at my office named Derek Felder. He has a Facebook page dedicated to Incorporation, and it’s astonishing how many people are members of his page. People now realize that with our size, things need to change. Derek has given them a place to voice their support and also to organize. You see people discussing things most everyone agrees we need: more police presence on the roads, more shopping and restaurant options so we don’t have to drive into Fort Myers all the time, sidewalks, beautified and cared for roads, more parks, more places to meet, actual places to be entertained like movie theaters or venues for bands, and the list goes on and on. As it is, these wants simply will not happen anytime soon, so I believe it is best we do what rational adults do – assess things and take action.
I’ve already met with our State Representative, Tiffany Esposito, and she’s all in on helping us get the ball rolling. My meetings with different County leaders have shown a consistent theme that they acknowledge it’s time for Lehigh to grow up and start taking care of itself. They also realize, and I don’t take this as cynical, that we are clogging their roads so if we had all of these nice options, we would no longer need to drive into Fort Myers to experience them. Now, this is a multi-year project and will require a lot of people working together to make it happen. To be completely fair, I have only laid out the positives of Incorporation. A feasibility study must be done to be sure that this is a good idea, not just for the overall improvements, but that it is also a good financial idea. No one, and I am darn sure one of them, wants to pay additional taxes, so being a rational adult, I want to see what this study says, and we can make good decisions then. In the meantime, I suggest we plow forward and get the ball rolling and prioritize that study while also checking off the other boxes to get this going. It cannot go forward without a community vote, no matter what, so this article is merely to plant the seed of what I consider a great idea whose time has finally come.