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Bonita Springs HOAs could merge into one city district

DEMOCRACY WATCH: Bonita Redistricting
Samantha Roesler
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Pelican Landing and Bonita Bay, Bonita Springs' two largest homeowner's associations, both could be part of District 4 depending on how the city council votes. Redistricting has created a socio-economic discussion between the two communities and the rest of the city.

As the vote for a new district map in Bonita Springs will be made by city council on April 6, there is a battle for Bonita Bay and Pelican Landing, the city’s two major homeowners associations (HOAs), to stay in two different districts.

There are three district alternatives that have been brought to the council. The proposed maps have been created based on the 2020 census data and aim to create as equal population as possible in each district, while considering future growth of the city. The new districts will go into effect in November.

The first alternative has the least amount of change as it expands District 3, the southernmost district, east to I-75, taking some population away from District 6, the easternmost district. According to the census data, District 6 was 25% over the average amount of residents, and District 3 was under by almost 17%.

The second and third maps are similar in their goals: under-populating District 6 in anticipation of growth. The maps propose having District 1, which currently holds Pelican Landing, move east of U.S. 41 and take some of District 6 land. Then, District 4, which holds Bonita Bay, will extend its border north to hold Pelican Landing and Lover’s Key.

Combining Bonita Bay and Pelican Landing into District 4 holds concerns for some residents and councilors.

Bonita Springs resident Dwight Esmon currently resides in District 4 under Councilor Chris Corrie. If map two or three is adopted, he would be part of District 1 starting in November.

“This is a political move to try to cram the two big wealthy communities into one district to make sure that they aren’t represented by more than one councilperson,” Esmon said.

If alternative two or three is selected, the parts of District 4 that turn into District 1 would elect a new councilperson in November. That's because District 1 Councilor Amy Quaremba’s term will be ending.

However people currently in District 1 that would become a part of District 4, would have Councilor Corrie as their representative until at least 2024, when he is up for reelection. This means that the large community of Pelican Landing would have a councilperson they didn’t vote on for the next two years.

“In almost every redistricting issue everywhere, people are not assigned a representative,” Esmon said at a city council meeting earlier this month.

“It would be tough because they would probably feel like they don’t know me, I don’t know them, and you’d have to try and build up a level of trust,” Corrie said. “For those that pay attention to city politics, they’re probably resentful that all of a sudden, the representative that lives in their community got cut out of the deal and they’re being forced to be represented by somebody else.”

One of Corrie’s concerns about the map alternatives is that it could be based on flawed census data.

“I think that Bonita Springs was generally undercounted in terms of population because a lot of people who are residents in Florida for purposes of voting and that pay taxes down here didn’t come down because of the COVID pandemic or they went back home early,” Corrie said.

The predicted census number for Bonita Springs was 10,000 residents over what the actual number came out to be. According to Corrie, the anticipated count was 64,000 residents while the actual count was 54,000.

Redistricting has created a socio-economic discussion between the two large HOAs and the rest of the city. Some believe that combining the two communities could limit their influence.

“(District 1) does swing over across the city but because of the population Pelican Landing has, usually someone from the large, gated community is going to have influence far more than somebody from the outside,” Bonita Springs resident Ben Hershenson said.

Hershenson lives in District 4 outside of Bonita Bay and ran for a council seat in 2020. During his campaign, he noticed a form of divisiveness from Bonita Bay and the rest of the district while he was holding a forum inside the gated community.

“The issues pursuant to the questions were basically reflective upon ‘How does it impact us,’ meaning that particular community,” Hershenson said. “When you’re representing different communities, I really believe it’s time for this whole area to be heard a little more than we have in the past.”

Quaremba, the current District 1 councilor, will leave office in November. She argues strongly against combining Pelican Landing and Bonita Bay into the same district.

“We’re so fortunate in how we live, and we don’t really have to look outside very far to satisfy our little simple needs, so I think it’s a powerful voice for people who have a lot of fortunate things happening in their lives to see the needs and the interests of other people and to work for them,” Quaremba said.

Councilor Jesse Purdon, who represents District 2 covering part of Bonita Springs east of Old 41, said he has received emails from HOA residents that claim to deserve a councilor from their community because of the amount of money they bring to the city.

“That argument is going to turn me off every time because it’s them looking down their nose at a district like mine that has firefighters, police officers, teachers and small businesses, and I’m proud to represent that,” Purdon said.

Quaremba believes that the economic status of residents in the city should be something to consider when determining a district map.

“We have very high-end values in our units in both Pelican Landing and Bonita Bay and to concentrate that all together, it can’t be healthy,” Quaremba said. “We always talk about not dissipating the minority interests, but socio-economic interests are important also.”

Residents like Hershenson disagree. He said that people who reside in gated communities should be grouped together due to their similarities.

“I wonder how many people from Bonita Bay, the same district that I’m in right now, have driven other roads,” Hershenson said. “Why would they want to do that because they have everything they want. I think it’s time for a change.”

Corrie wants to remind people that individuals run for seats based on more than representing one community.

“The HOAs themselves are not running,” Corrie said. “It’s somebody in the community that’s wanting to run to be a public service.”

Councilor Purdon has not taken a stance yet on a particular map, as District 2 sees minimal changes with any alternative.

“I’m more of a free agent in the sense that things stay the same in regard to my district either way,” Purdon said. “I would say holistically, it’ll be interesting to see how these map changes may affect the future of Bonita politics.”