A New Perspective 4-24-01: Natural Resources

Golden Gate Gazette

April 24, 2001

“Balancing environmental protection and property rights,” was how Collier County District 5 Commissioner Jim Coletta characterized his vision for penning new development practices for rural Collier County at a natural resources workshop in commission chambers, Apr. 17.
The meeting featured a presentation on Collier County’s natural environment by county natural resources director Bill Lorenz and outlined what steps the county is taking in order to fulfill the requirements of Governor Jeb Bush’s Final Order, imposed in 1999.
That decision came about after seven amendments to Collier County’s comprehensive plan in 1996 were found not in compliance by the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
The Final Order requires the county to improve natural resource protection and curb urban sprawl. Until those protections are in place the rural agricultural lands east of the one mile urban boundary are under a building moratorium.
Lorenz explained the most “pressing issues” for the county are devising amendments to better protect wetlands – which make up about 70 percent of the county — and preserve habitat for listed species.
District 3 Commissioner Tom Henning noted that Pelican Bay was a wetland before it was filled and developed.
“How far do we want to go to restore wetlands?” he asked.
Commissioner Pam Mac’Kie said she thought the county should try to preserve wetlands systems that are relatively intact, but not concentrate on isolated and urban wetlands.
“I’d rather give up some of those isolated cypress heads in exchange for land way out that is still functioning,” she said.
District 1 Commissioner Donna Fiala, whose daughter lives in the rural Estates, asked if Northern Golden Gate Estates (NGGE) was being considered for wetlands restoration.
Lorenz said county staff has developed NGGE maps of wetland sloughs present before the area was platted and canals dug. He said some of the areas show “some degree of potential” for restoration and preservation.
He said some area environmental groups and staff had been talking about wetland restoration possibilities that could provide firebreaks, passive recreation and wildlife corridors.
“This could be a benefit for some of the people in Golden Gate Estates,” he said.
Lorenz said 20 to 25 percent of NGGE properties involve wetlands and require Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permits for development. Destruction of wetlands property on those sites requires mitigation. If some areas in the Estates could be sanctioned as receiving areas for that mitigation, wetlands could be preserved.
Coletta said he saw healthy bird and animal populations in rural Collier County as indicators of a healthy place for residents.
“Wildlife is a measuring stick to see how safe the environment is for ourselves,” he noted.
Henning proposed using road-building mitigation requirements to buy land for preservation in Collier County. He said the county is required to spend $1 million in wetlands impacts for the Livingston Road extension alone. Since there is no state-recognized mitigation bank in Collier County, the money is all going to benefit preservation in Collier County.
Some residents have questioned that if 70 percent of the county is already in some form of preserve, park, refuge or state forest, isn’t that enough to preserve?
Lorenz says Collier County is blessed with some of the state’s and even the country’s most diverse and endangered plants and animals, requiring a higher level of preservation according to federal and state laws.
He said preserving what’s left of Collier County’s wetlands – close to 70 percent of the county – also benefits residents. Maintaining wetlands helps lessen the effects of flooding during the rainy season, improves water quality, insures more available water for human use and protects residents from fire, he said
In addition, Lorenz said preserving habitat for wildlife – which means protecting some upland land areas — contributes to recreational opportunities, helps insure the economic health of the community since tourism is a large part of the economy and maintains the quality o life.
Staff and commissioners discussed ways to keep development out of the rural areas, including giving developers density transfers to the urban area, clustering homes in some areas to avoid impacting wetlands and productive upland habitat and using tax dollars to buy rural lands.
“We should ask the development community what they want because density might not be it,” Mac’Kie said. “There must be something they’re willing to trade.”
She noted that developers weren’t using the four units per acre allowed in the urban area. She said the average density was about 2.4 units per acre.
Land use attorney Bruce Anderson said he did not believe transferring development rights from the rural to the urban area would work, implying there was no demand. He suggested transferring from one part of the rural area to another.
He urged the county to start setting aside money for conservation in their budget as the most effective way to curb development in certain areas.
“The urban boundary was not intended to be put in place forever,” Anderson said, criticizing language in the recent community character plan. The plan suggests keeping urban and suburban type development within the urban boundary until the 80,000 permitted but undeveloped units are built there.
By June 22, 2002, the county must have the necessary comprehensive plan amendments in effect to carry out the Final Order.
Requirements of the Governor’s Final Order to the county include:
• identifying and proposing measures to protect prime agricultural areas to prevent the premature conversion of agricultural lands to other uses;
• directing incompatible uses away from wetlands and upland habitat in order to protect water quality and quantity and maintain the natural water regime and protect listed animals, plants and their habitats; and
• encouraging development that utilizes creative land use planning techniques which may better serve to protect environmentally sensitive areas, maintain the economic viability of agriculture and provide for the cost-efficient delivery of public facilities and services.