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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 13, 2015 3 years ago

Village counsel

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Naples attorney Burt Saunders helped birth a new municipality. It was an atypical career highlight.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

On March 17th at 6 p.m., Burt Saunders will have an opportunity few municipal attorneys ever get.

The Naples attorney will open the meeting for Village of Estero, Florida's newest municipality. It will be the culmination of nearly two years of work to create the new city located halfway between Fort Myers and Naples in south Lee County.

Estero landed on the business map two years ago when Hertz decided to move its global headquarters there from New Jersey. The company is building an $85 million campus on U.S. 41.

Saunders, with GrayRobinson, is intimately familiar with the inner workings of state and local government. He has served as county attorney and a commissioner in Collier County, was a state representative from 1994 to 1998 and a state senator from 1998 to 2008.

In late spring 2013, a group of well-organized citizens called the Estero Council of Community Leaders, better known by its ECCL initials, hired Saunders to help them get incorporation on the ballot for the election in November 2014. They had to move fast because they had to draft a special act for the Legislature by Sept. 1, 2013. “The thing that was the most important was getting it through the Legislature,” says Saunders.

No one was in a rush to incorporate Estero until a neighboring municipality forced the issue. “The city of Bonita Springs wanted to aggressively annex areas [of Estero], and that would put an end to that,” Saunders says.

But the ECCL delivered 10,000 signatures to petition the Legislature, roughly half the residents of the area. “That sent a pretty strong message to the delegation,” says Don Eslick, chairman emeritus of the ECCL. “That helped Burt in the negotiations.”

Saunders negotiated a peace treaty of sorts with Bonita Springs, agreeing to establish the boundaries of Estero. “He is conciliatory,” says Eslick. “He's always looking for a compromise. Legislators have that attitude oftentimes.”

Saunders first had to win the backing of the local state legislative delegation. With the petitions and an agreement that Bonita Springs would hold off annexations, he petitioned the local delegation to forward the bill in December 2013. “The local delegation is absolutely essential,” he says.

But Saunders says you can't leave it in the hands of legislators alone. “No one is going to oppose a local bill, but you have to work with the committee,” he says.

Saunders lives in Tallahassee, in an apartment three blocks from the state Legislature, during the legislative session. “Nothing happens unless you're up there,” Saunders says.

After spending 14 years as a state representative and state senator, Saunders knows his way around the state capital. “It's the knowledge of the intricacies of the legislative process and knowing all the key players up there,” says Eslick, who notes that a “substantial” portion of the $80,000 that ECCL raised for the incorporation effort was for legal expenses. “He has a great ability to create relationships.”

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss

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