Winds of change

New Collier Building Industry Association president talks about a future that was in flux even before Hurricane Wilma

Scott Coulombe knows something about hurricanes.

He left his position as the director of the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans just months before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Scott Coulombe took over as director of the Collier Building Industry Association in July.

Photo by DAVID AHNTHOLZ, Bonita Daily News

Scott Coulombe took over as director of the Collier Building Industry Association in July.

The former director of the Charlotte Builders and Contractors Association didn’t escape Hurricane Charley, though. With family still in the area and a home under construction, Coulombe felt the impact.

And he made it to Collier County just in time for Hurricane Wilma.

The new director of the Collier Building Industry Association took over July 11, and the construction’s chief local lobbyist is finding he likes Naples.

Leaving New Orleans earlier this summer, people told Coulombe he would miss the food, he said. But he’s finding that Naples has some pretty good restaurants also.

“Naples truly is a wonderful community,” Coulombe said.

One of Coulombe’s first tasks has been to get to know the area, and he’s doing that through Leadership Collier classes.

“It’s a very busy community,” Coulombe said. “There’s a lot to do. I think there’s a lot to be proud of.”

In a recent interview, Coulombe gave his thoughts on lessons learned from the hurricanes and the challenges that lie ahead for the construction industry and the community.

Q. What do you expect to see in Collier County in the next 10 years?

A. Certainly I would hope in the very near future that we as a community do come together as an entire entity with our local government and all the business community and interests to address and come up with solutions to the workforce housing or the lack of.

It is, as we speak now, at critical mass. Everywhere I’ve been in the community so far ... the No. 1 issue that has come up from every sector is the lack of housing that people can afford.

Some business entities are trying to increase the pay, but it’s all relative when they try to attract someone, let’s say for $70,000 a year. ... Nationally that’s a good salary ... But when they do their search, and they’re done looking, they’re in sticker shock. They really can’t afford to move. ...

If they move to north of here, let’s say to Lee County or Charlotte or Hendry, let’s say basically a more affordable market than Collier County, than Naples, now that exacerbates our traffic problem. ...

The time is right to come together to address our densities, to address how we can develop in the east section and even some infill areas in Collier County....

It makes the economics of a development site work, and can make the housing more affordable for people to achieve. ...There are going to be some traffic situations to where the local government is going to have to be a little bit more forgiving with concurrency issues and level of service on roads. Because you really can’t have your cake and eat it, too, all in one bite. ...

The county by their own numbers is stating that we have over 30,000 units that we’re behind on. ... It will take some land development code changes, but it can be done.

Q. Do you think impact fees are too high in Collier County?

A. Well, the obvious answer is — well, of course. They’re over $17,000 a unit, but it’s a reality that government’s never going to back away from. ...They’re here ... and we have to learn to deal with it.

But the way the current land development code is written and the way we currently have our densities, it is a burden to any first-time home buyer in Collier County. ...

The average sale of our homes in Collier County is $500,000. That’s half a million dollars. It’s hard for a young couple to come up with that kind of money. ... But that $17,400 — thereabouts — that’s a big chunk that you have to pay to the government. ...

If we can increase our densities and a developer can make those numbers work, we can bring down the cost of housing substantially to really take the punch out of that and make it more affordable and more attainable for those first-time home buyers. ...

Now we also would hope that our local governments are doing the best and the most efficient spending of our tax dollars and our impact fee dollars that they possibly can....

We do want to work with the local governments to always address our future and infrastructure needs ... Because if you step back and look at Collier County ... it’s probably one of the most beautiful communities in the nation. ...We didn’t rape. We didn’t plunder. We didn’t just come in and knock everything down and leave it barren. ... It’s a wonderful community.

Q. Do you think high impact fees are enabling the county to keep property taxes low?

A. Yes, that trend is happening all over the nation. ...The valuation has gone up so much they haven’t had to (raise taxes), but the thing we’re looking at is ... impact fees are only a one-time proportionate fair-share surcharge. It is not and cannot be allowed for any maintenance and operations. So that’s one that sooner or later they’re going to have to grapple with.

Q. What is the biggest lesson we’ve learned from last year’s and this year’s hurricanes?

A. That hurricane preparation is vital to the community as a whole. ...We did have ample time to prepare. Those that had made the decision to evacuate had plenty of time. Those that made the decision to stay also had plenty of time to stock up on supplies and the needs to carry them through until we had power restored and water restored. I think Collier County citizens did an outstanding job, and our local government and our permitting agencies, our police, our fire, all concerned did an outstanding job.

Q. What difference did the Florida Building Code make?

A. The Florida Building Code is now proof that it is productive and it works. It helps mitigate millions and millions of dollars worth of damage that we were getting in the past from our past storms. For example, had Alabama, I suspect, Louisiana and Mississippi had Florida’s stringent build codes, I think a lot of theirs could have been mitigated.

Q. Speaking of those states, how does the Florida Building Code compare with the codes that you worked under in Louisiana?

A. The No. 1 thing I would have to say is our wind design. Our homes are designed to withstand current gust winds of up to 130 miles an hour, and then we have all the tie-down straps and the hurricane clips. They do work. ...

But the most important and simple thing that people have to remember, we also instituted the mandatory shutters and/or hurricane glazing windows. That is crucial to protecting the envelope of our home. ...

Our garage doors ... have special bracing, steel bracing and reinforcing. With the design loads that we have incorporated in Florida, our envelopes, they are far better than our surrounding Gulf states have done.

Q. How does construction now compare with what was happening in the 1990s when you were in Charlotte County?

A. We have a stronger code. We have much better compliance and inspection process and design review before they’re permitted to make sure we actually do in the field what was approved in the department.

Q. Do you think high impact fees are promoting a no-growth agenda on the part of the county?

A. Some of the first-time home buyers might have that perception. I don’t believe that they did it on purpose to promote anti-growth. The local government’s dependency upon impact fees for infrastructure dollars is that driving force.

In the older days ... they budgeted better with the millage rates and taxing people — setting aside monies for infrastructure. With the advent over the past 30 to 40 years of many more social programs in our society, infrastructure funding was no longer a priority.

But local governments in Florida have gone to impact fees for virtually almost everything, and we are escalating.

I believe Collier County is one of the highest in the state of Florida at this point with over $17,000 for a house. ...What’s hurt us is the downzoning that happened four to five years ago. That has created and driven the valuation through the roof as far as supply and demand for available building lots go, which has led us into the current critical mass crises of no affordable workforce housing. Impact fees have exacerbated some of it but are not the cause of the problem. ...

Q. Do you think development has become a dirty word?

A. I would certainly hope that it has not become a dirty word. I know some people get angry. They talk about environmental issues. I think they’re being awfully myopic if that’s their opinion.

They have to step back and look at the big picture of what development has done for Naples as a community. It is considered one of the most premier and pristine communities in the nation, and it is highly regarded in Europe also as a remarkably pristine community.

We in the development industry have created and done that, and in many instances have created a far better scenario for land use than it would have been in its natural raw state.

We have gotten rid of a lot of noxious species, and replanted with proper Florida species. Our endangered species are thriving and coming back due to our efforts.

I really hope that the citizens and the community step back and look at the big picture and not look at little isolated incidents. When I have flown over Collier County, I am just amazed at how beautiful it is.

Q. What is the biggest barrier you have seen for development in Collier County?

A. The density — the downsizing by the government four to five years ago has come back to hurt us severely. Our schools, our hospitals, our business community, we’re in crisis for housing for our central workforce people, especially first-time home buyers.

Q. Do you agree or disagree with county estimates that say Collier County will hit 1 million people before build-out?

A. I disagree with that. I think that is a statistical drawn-out scenario and is a worst-case scenario. Obviously, if we keep going at this rate with the lack of affordable housing for our workforce people, we’ll never even come close to anything that they would consider a million people. ...

I think that’s just grossly overstated and painted in its worst-case scenario, which government and future planners — they have to kind of look at what would be and could be the worst-case scenario. But realistically with the economics and what we’re all facing presently, that won’t happen.

Q. Why don’t people think the environment and development can co-exist?

A. I think they have just gotten a lot of misinformation and hype from all the environmental extremists over the years. I think Collier County is an exemplary example of how environment and development does get along and can get along hand in hand. Both sides have sat down in this community and worked out some good compromises.

The proof is in the pudding. Look around.

I find it disturbing when people just take little snapshots and will overreact and start crying that the sky is falling. They are not in tune with the actual data and the hard facts.

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