The Whale could be the first rebuilt restaurant on Fort Myers Beach since Hurricane Ian turned the downtown district into a war zone, wiping out nearly 100 percent of the businesses in that area.
On Tuesday, the Local Planning Agency granted Whale owners Mike and Dawn Miller 3 variances that will allow them to move forward with their plans to rebuild. The variances still need to be approved by the Town Council, which will take up the matter in December, where its expected to pass.
The Miller’s are hoping to break ground on their new building in January or February. Construction is expected to take 14 months. That would put the ribbon cutting for the new Whale in the first quarter of 2025.
LPA members spent 90 minutes discussing The Whale proposal, after hearing unanimous support from several public speakers and entering even more support from residents who submitted their input by e-mail.
The sticking point for the approval was parking. The current town code, which LPA member Scott Safford said is broken, required The Whale to have over 50 parking spots. Before the storm, The Whale had less than 20. It was an extremely successful restaurant with nearly 100 percent walk-in traffic. It’s impossible to include 50 plus parking spots on the property and still build a building.
In the end, the LPA approved the parking variance for 17 spots but also required the Miller’s to come up with a plan to manage the deficiency and submit that to the Town Council when they go for final approval. The LPA’s request for a parking plan cannot delay the project and the Town Council can decide to nix the LPA’s desire for the Miller’s to produce a parking plan and still approve the project.
The LPA, at times, appeared to be trying to fix the town’s under-addressed parking problems on the back of this one business. On one hand, elected and appointed officials consistently complain about trying to keep traffic flowing, and promoting more walking and biking, especially in the downtown district, where the majority of the bottlenecks occur. Yet, the town code requires a restaurant in that area to have 54 parking spots which would do nothing but add to the congestion they say they are trying to avoid.
The LPA also approved two other variances for the project. The current code for that location only allows for a maximum of 30 feet above base flood elevation and a building that is 2 stories high. The building could have been built without enclosed space on the first floor, and be three stories high, however, the code says it could still only be 30 feet above base flood elevation. The Miller’s received variances for a building that is 2 stories over base flood elevation, with enclosed space on the first floor, and approval to go up 36 feet. They will use the extra feet to enclose ugly equipment.
LPA member Scott Safford, who also owned a small business in the downtown district (The Sea Gypsy), went on to say said, “The Fort Myers Beach code is broke. Every restaurant is going to be challenged with the same thing. The public benefit is this guy is investing in the community. I want to see shovels in the ground and see this place built.”
Dawn Miller told Beach Talk Radio News, “Mike and I are proud to be bringing back the iconic Whale. Breaking ground in early 2024 will be a great moment for our community. I can’t think of better way to start the new year.”