Multiple new towns to be built in eastern Collier County

By April Olson | Senior Environmental Planning Specialist

By April Olson I Conservancy Senior Environmental Planning Specialist

Collier County’s Growth Management Department is undertaking a second review of a planning area in eastern Collier County that can accommodate 43,300 acres of new towns and villages. These new towns and villages could add more than 300,000+ full-time residents to the county’s population, which currently has about 360,000 residents.

The planning area, called Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA), is located east of Golden Gate Estates, surrounds Immokalee and runs clear to the Lee and Hendry County lines. The RLSA consists of 300 square miles of agricultural fields, pastures, wetlands, and habitat for listed species, including the endangered Florida panther.

The development potential for the RLSA is massive. Eleven new towns the size of Ave Maria or even 2 mega-towns the size of Fort Lauderdale could be built in the RLSA! Never in Collier County’s recent history has so much been at stake!

That much development raises many questions regarding the impact of 43,300 acres of new towns on water resources, habitat, and quality of life for numerous generations.

Will the addition of a hundred thousand fertilized yards, rooftops, and driveways worsen our water quality crisis? Will the landowners’ proposed $7.8 billion roadway network cost taxpayer dollars? Will the new towns divert County funds otherwise needed for infrastructure to fix bridges or for flood control? Or will habitat destruction be the final nail in the coffin for the endangered Florida panther and other listed species?

These are all important questions that should be addressed prior to construction of these new towns.

You may be wondering why Collier County would allow so much development so far from urbanization — especially since Ave Maria, the first town in the RLSA, isn’t anywhere near build-out, even after 12 years. The reality is that the plan we have today for the RLSA is not the plan that the county or the public thought they were getting when the program was adopted in 2002. The original intent of the program was to allow 16,800 acres or 9% of the RLSA to be developed in the form of mixed-use compact towns and villages. The projected build-out population of 87,000 was to remain the same with the new RLSA program. However, in 2008, during the initial 5-year review period, it was revealed that the program actually allowed 43,300 acres of development for towns and villages, which was 250% more developable land than what was disclosed to the public. This meant that instead of a build-out population of 87,000, the build-out population in the RLSA could grow to 3 or 4 times that!

To make matters worse, in 2015, Eastern Collier Property Owners (ECPO), an alliance of eight major landowners in the RLSA, applied for a massive 50 year incidental take permit under the Endangered Species Act. If approved, the incidental take permit would allow them to construct these new towns in the middle of primary panther habitat and within the habitat of 10 other federally listed species, (including 1 candidate species /2 under review). As a requirement for the permit, ECPO created a “Habitat Conservation Plan” (HCP), which EPCO purports will mitigate impacts to listed species. However, the Conservancy has grave concerns that the proposed HCP does nothing to minimize impacts and will create conditions that will make matters much worse for many listed species and could determine the fate of the Florida panther.

What does this all mean now? The RLSA program is currently undergoing a second review by Collier County. Decisions are being made right now in the RLSA that will affect future generations for our citizens and precious wildlife. THIS is our chance ensure that the RLSA program adheres to the very principles for which it was written. The landowner’s HCP for the incidental take permit is also under review. The Conservancy has solutions to make the RLSA program and HCP better, but we need your help. Get involved now before it’s too late.

Please click the image below to go to Conservancy.org/EasternCollier to learn more and to find out how you can help.

We would also like to see you at our next Evenings at the Conservancy, on October 16, 2018 at 6:00 pm, where we will discuss the basics of the RLSA program, our concerns and solutions, and the landowners’ “Habitat Conservation Plan.”

Seating at the Evenings at the Conservancy is limited, and often sells out. Reserve your seat today by contacting Sophia Navarra via email SophiaN@conservancy.org or phone 239–403–4207.

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Conservancy of SWFL

Conservancy of SWFL

Protecting Southwest Florida's unique natural environment and quality of life...now and forever.