Five years later: A look back at when Estero became a village — and what the future might bring
It was Dec. 31, 2014.
Across Southwest Florida, people celebrated the end of one year and the start of a new one.
At the same time, an area in south Lee County observed another new beginning: the official creation of the village of Estero.
A year-and-a-half of community organizing brought Estero residents to that point. It involved public meetings and petitions. It required a state bill and a local referendum.
Five years later, Estero has gone a long way to establish itself among the cities in Lee County. Community leaders say the village is following future plans to elevate the quality of life across Estero.
Six hours of interviews with Estero village councilors and with notable community leaders form this oral history of how Estero’s incorporation came to be and what the future might hold.
Incorporation had been a discussion in Estero for years.
In 2013, the Estero Council of Community Leaders, a civic group that advocates for policy issues in and outside of Estero started to push for the creation of a village, in part, due to the city of Bonita Springs’ attempts to grow north.
Bonita Springs voted that year to annex 135 acres at its northwest boundary. The move brought the Pelican Landing-owned Coconut Point Marina and 121 acres of vacant land into Bonita Springs.
The Estero Council of Community Leaders, known as the ECCL, called a meeting to address the pursuit of creating a city. The overwhelming support of its members kicked off public presentations and a petition drive throughout Estero.
Nick Batos, Estero councilor and former chairman of the Estero Council of Community Leaders: “The straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak, was when the city of Bonita Springs tried to start annexing property that was in Estero. Once they did that, I automatically felt the time had come that we must incorporate to try to protect the real estate, the properties that were in Estero.”
Howard Levitan, Estero councilor and former vice-chairman of the ECCL: “Basically, we said, ‘Here is what the advantages are — home rule, preserve and enhance building standards, use revenue locally, community centered government, control future growth, and protect Estero’s quality of life.”
Katy Errington, Estero councilor: “I wasn’t involved in the ECCL, I just thought it was a good idea, especially after the Hyatt Regency (Coconut Point Resort & Spa) in 2014 became part of Bonita Springs. I thought we needed to do something, even though I wasn’t involved with politics at that time.”
Howard Levitan: “Almost nobody (in the state) had (incorporated) the first time around. It had to go through the Legislature.”
Ray Rodrigues, Estero’s state representative who sponsored the cityhood bill: “I did it for a couple of reasons. One, when I looked at what the tax rate would be for citizens of Estero … it was clear that everyone in Estero would be getting a tax reduction if the incorporation passed. I thought that was a good idea. Estero did have a solid vision around their development. There was a real desire to protect property values.”
The Rodrigues-sponsored incorporation bill passed the Florida house and senate in April 2014.
The following month, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed off on the bill, which allowed Estero residents to pursue incorporation in a referendum.
The day of the cityhood vote was Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014.
Supporters gathered at the Bonita Springs-Estero Elks Lodge to watch the results. Incorporation passed, with 87 percent of those who voted in favor.
Estero would become the sixth Lee County municipality and the first incorporation in the county in 15 years.
Bill Ribble, Estero councilor and current mayor: “It was unbelievable because we weren’t really sure how (the vote) was going to go. There was no guarantee that we were going to get our ticket punched.”
Nick Batos: “It had been a year-and-a-half of running and running and running. It had now achieved what we wanted it to do.”
Howard Levitan: “We knew now we had to really start to figure it out. Nobody knew who was even going to run (for the council) at that point.”
Who would be elected to the first Village Council?
Estero residents made history again when the inaugural village council was elected March 3, 2015.
Two weeks later, the new council held its first public meeting at Estero High School. The councilors sat on a stage in the school auditorium.
Batos was chosen as Estero’s first mayor and Levitan as vice-mayor.
The seven-member group then set out to build a government.
Katy Errington: I couldn’t believe I was an elected official.
Nick Batos: “You work for something for a long time and all of a sudden the day is there. After all that effort and all the time, the day is here.”
Howard Levitan: “We had to figure out what we were going to do right off the bat because we had nothing. That was the amazing thing about what had happened.”
Don Eslick, former chairman of the ECCL: “It went in my judgment pretty smoothly, considering they were brand new. We had the transition committee that the ECCL had formed, which really helped, too, to lay the groundwork for them going ahead.
What would the new village of Estero get done?
Over the last five years, Estero has taken steps to plan for future growth in the city. It established rules for a village center, a walkable mixed-use downtown in the heart of the village. It created two development boards targeting planning and design. It hired a staff to follow the village’s desire to be “government-lite.”
The village in 2019 purchased 62 acres along the Estero River. The purchase price was $24.5 million, and it required Estero to take on a $20 million loan.
Estero councilors and village staff say they want to see much of the land used for conservation and potential recreation opportunities.
Howard Levitan: “We said we weren’t going to spend (money) right off the bat. We didn’t. We created budgets every year, but we didn’t spend the money. We built these big reserves. That has given us the money to start to do what we want to do.”
Nick Batos: “I think (the Corkscrew Road land is) going to be to Estero what Central Park is to New York.”
Jon McLain, Estero Councilman: “Without that, we would just have another piece of developed land there. I think that gives us a great opportunity to add a cultural experience to the village.”
Bill Ribble: “We’ve had a lot of bumps in the road along the way, but I think we’ve learned how to be collaborative as a council. You can see it in the dialogue.”
Jim Boesch: “Everyone pitched in to do their homework. That’s what’s made the village what it is today.”
Ray Rodrigues: “Five years later, we still have the Estero citizens paying less in property taxes than if they remained in unincorporated Lee County. They still have the strong development standards Estero was pursuing, which has led to property values remaining high in the village. We have a village that has governed with the government lite philosophy. From that standpoint, I think the citizens have gotten what they voted for.”
Can the Village Council become more diverse?
Estero’s leaders see room for improvement.
The Village Council lacks diversity. It is comprised of six white men and one woman. All seven councilors are older than 65.
More than 45 percent of Estero is 65 years or older, according to U.S. Census estimates.
But engaging young people and families in the community will need to become a priority, councilors say.
Jim Boesch: “A municipality has to support people of all ages. It cannot just be 32 gated communities where older people live.”
Bill Ribble: “That’s been a challenge. Now that Corkscrew Road is growing, there are going to be 6,500 new families out there. A lot of them are younger families. We’re going to have to harvest that group and get them involved.”
Nick Batos: “One of the challenges we’re going to have is getting people who are going to be willing to run for office and getting a diversity of people who are going to be willing to run.”
What will Estero’s next five years be like?
The makeup of the Estero Village Council will change due to expiring council terms. Growth and development is likely to continue across the community.
Village-funded studies and plans are trying to guide Estero’s future, from parks and open space to water quality.
Katy Errington: “I think a lot of things will change in Estero. We have to have a place of destination. We don’t have that yet. We have to have a reason for people to come here.”
Don Eslick: “It will be very interesting to see what’s going to happen with the Estero on the River property. Will that really develop as a town center? Will that be the site of the city hall? Will that be the site for a performing arts theater?”
Howard Levitan: “I think we’re going to keep growing, but not just internally, externally grow. I think that because our tax rate is lower than the county and surrounding communities, people will opt in, will ask to be annexed, especially some of the communities out on Corkscrew Road.”
Nick Batos: “I think in the next five to ten years, we’re going to see even a bigger change than we’ve seen in the first five years. I think some of the projects now being thought about, whether it be the large piece of property we bought, whether it be the relationship with the schools … I think all of those things are going to come to fruition in the next five to 10 years. That will be a statement of how nice it can be.”