Tuesday, May 25 marked a long day – and evening – for the Collier County Commissioners as they listened to the hearing on the development of Longwater Village, Bellmar Village, and the Town of Big Cypress. In the end, the Commissioners delayed a final vote understanding the immense responsibility this potential approval will have to the county. Also, Commissioner LoCastro was unable to attend due to a family emergency, and Commissioner Saunders felt that a full Commission vote was imperative. Saunders noted that this development will shape the future growth of the eastern portion of the county for years to come.
The controversy surrounding the proposed developments is its proximity to the Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA), an environmentally sensitive area that also includes the Florida Panther National Wildlife refuge. The refuge holds the highest density of the endangered panthers in the state and the proposed villages are adjacent to it, potentially fragmenting the interconnected habitat and travel corridors that the panther, and other species, use. While environmentalists point to the importance of passageways for the panther, the county’s own rules do not require it as part of the species sustainability. Interpretation of the RLSA is what is causing opposition, controversy, and lawsuits.
Collier Enterprises is the petitioner for the project and started the meeting with an overview of the proposed developments. Each village is just under 1,000 acres each; Longwater village will contain up to 2,600 new residences and Bellmar will have up to 2,750. Both Longwater and Bellmar will have commercial, government and civic buildings. Upon approval of these two villages, Collier Enterprises wants to “link” them with Rivergrass Village, an already approved project, to create the Town of Big Cypress. Of note is that the approved Rivergrass Village faced a lawsuit by The Conservancy of Southwest Florida last year and a judge recently ruled in favor of Collier Enterprises. The Conservancy will be appealing so Rivergrass Village may still be on hold.
Also pending would be the Town of Big Cypress. Only after the approval of Longwater and Bellmar will Collier Enterprises bring a formal petition to form the town. Since the town proposal still needs review by county Staff and the Planning Commission, it won’t be until next year when commissioners will need to make a final decision. Opponents point to the fact that there is nothing binding Collier Enterprises to actually move forward with the town at all or even to do so in a timely manner.
County Staff followed Collier Enterprises with their presentation. The Staff’s responsibility is to review the application and make sure it adheres to the county and state requirements for development. These requirements range from walkability within the developments to environmental sensitivity. Staff is also tasked with showing commissioners how the county is going to pay for the growth with an economic assessment; this development isn’t just about putting down buildings and houses. Other considerations includes sewage, electric, roads and water. Staff also reviewed what the state does and does not allow us to charge the applicant and where the county will be required to pay. Also reviewed were the service needs of fire, police, etc. Staff points that this is not just building two more gated communities; if all three are to be combined for a town, that town will require everything any town would require for their county and the county would get tax revenues from this.
County staff verified the legality on the size of each village and the requirements for building the communities and recommend approval of Longwater and Bellman Village.
Input on the proposed development was split. Opponents include The Conservancy, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, and the South Florida Wildlands Association who believe this project will turn Collier into “another Broward County”. Opponents point to the fact not only will these developments restrict corridor access to the panthers but will attract bears that will want to investigate food odors. The potential for human-bear and human-panther conflict is high and documented bear attacks have already happened in other Florida communities that have been built next to areas where bears are plentiful. The developments will cause fragmentation of the lands used by the animals, an increase in traffic related animal kill and more human-wildlife conflicts. Opponents comment that it is an area primed for development that seemingly will be at the expense of wildlife. It is pointed out that an already new development of 2,500 acres across the road from the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the purchase of 1,000 acres just north of the Panther Refuge for a horticultural waste site, county fair and off-road vehicle park just creates more density to an environmentally sensitive area.
Those in favor the project include the Florida Wildlife Federation and Audubon. Both Meredith Budd, speaking for FWC and Brad Cornell, speaking for Audubon, say that the developer is committing to some very substantial and impactful conservational efforts to the land. Those include wildlife corridors/ crossings, the requirement for bear proof trash cans, preservation of historic flowways, reduced water usage and the preservation of acreage for the environment at no cost to taxpayers. These groups believe that the advantages have greater weight than the disadvantages.
The decision to delay the vote was met with approval from Collier Enterprises and opponents. The commissioners now have a couple additional weeks to further review all the details presented to them, as well as giving Commissioner LoCastro time to watch the video of the meeting. Commissioners will be voting on this during their next meeting on Tuesday, June 8.