County Commissioners took advantage of technology at their Tuesday, March 9 meeting as Commissioner Taylor was in quarantine due to indirect COVID exposure. She was able to attend virtually and fully participate.
The Commissioners agreed to hear an update on the declining dry season water levels at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Dr. Shawn Clem, Research Director at Audubon’s Corkscrew Sanctuary, and Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida Policy Associate, Audubon of Florida, presented a Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Hydrologic Modeling Project.
Dr. Clem started the presentation with an overview on Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary is a 13,000-acre national Audubon Society Sanctuary located within the 60,000-acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. It is home to the largest stand of old-growth bald cypress trees in the world which has supported a Wood Stork colony for years. Annual nesting numbers have declined with the main cause being the water (hydrology) that literally feeds the birds with aquatic prey. Dry downs to the area are happening more frequently and besides the effect it has on the Wood Stork, it also creates an increased fire risk and impacts the estuaries.
Clem and her team created scenarios to discover what was causing the dry downs and discovered that downstream drainage is the greatest stressor on the system. Reducing these would help to increase the water levels and shorten the length of dry downs. Flood control is tied to downstream drainage and Clem acknowledges that eliminating this is not feasible or realistic.
Commissioners agreed this is an important issue as “we all live downstream” and the integrity of this area is key to the health of our community. They moved to bring this back as an item with public input so they can possibly make some policy decisions to assist with the rehydration effort.
Next up came ten-minute presentations from the five finalists for the county manager position: Mr. Paul Carlisle the current city manager for the City of Sebastian, Charles Chapman the current city manager for the City of Naples, Mark Isaacson the Director of Corporate Financial Planning and Management Services for Collier County, Dan Rodriguez the Collier County Deputy County Manager, and Dr. George Yilmaz the Collier County Utilities Department Director. These five finalists already had their one-on-one conversations with each Commissioner. Commissioners will be making their decision by the second (next) March meeting.
There was a long discussion on Commissioner McDaniel’s motion to have the Board adjust its current schedule and forgo the break in summer meetings in 2021. Commissioner McDaniel feels there is enough county business to have the Board meet and make policy decisions year-round. Commissioner LoCastro is a “strong supporter of no summer vacations” because “we are not a college or a high school.” Commissioner Taylor pointed out that just because there are no meetings does not mean the commissioners, or Staff, are not working—they all work through the summer.
Commissioner Solis does not support having meetings during the summer; the citizens he talked with do not want the Board deciding on zoning matters or contentious land-use items when all the residents are not here. Commissioner McDaniel is willing to amend that these items are not discussed in the summer, but Commissioner Solis makes a point as to who decides what is contentious or not.
Commissioner Taylor agrees with Commissioner Solis that the public will view this change as a way for the Board to “rush” items through. Commissioner LoCastro believes that the Board “is smart enough to delay votes that require more people to be here that aren’t here,” and that if it appears there is nothing to talk about, the Board “has the right to say we are not going to have a Commissioner meeting.” Commissioner Solis commented that “we are on the brink of creating a process that has very little rules.” He said, “applications are made and the process moves forward and then we start arbitrarily deciding we’re going to push this one, we’re not going to push that one… this is the way the process unravels.” He goes on to state that “the county has struggled to have a process people can rely on.”
Commissioners Saunders and Taylor point to the stress on Staff, saying they need the meeting break so they can catch up on the work the Commissioners have tasked them. Note: Staff gathers the data and information the Board uses to make decisions. There was one public speaker to this issue who stated that residents who are gone during the summer will not have their “comments and tax concerns” heard and felt that this was a “ploy to rush projects through without a public quorum for comments.” The motion failed two to three with Commissioner McDaniel and LoCastro the yea votes. Commissioner McDaniel suggested bringing the issue back to discuss increasing meetings in the winter.
Next is a recommendation to approve an agreement for sale and purchase to acquire 1,046 acres at the Southeast corner of the intersection of Oil Well Road and Camp Keais Road, now owned by Barron Collier Partnership. Approximately 40% of the property is wetlands and will not be developed. Collier County Fair wants to buy some of this property in order to move the fair. Right now, the county leases the land the fair is on. County Manager Ochs mentioned that this lease has not been great for the county but made when development to that area seemed unlikely. Now that the area around the fair has been developed, it is “causing friction between neighbors and the fairgrounds.” There were four public speakers on this matter with comments ranging from possible environmental problems, proximity to panther habitat, use of taxpayers’ money and overall surprise from the Golden Gate Estates area who felt left out on a decision that will impact their community. The motion was approved unanimously.