Top 10 stories of 2006: From affording a home to finding a new home

A massive new town was unveiled, adults as old as 30 played local high school sports, the real estate market took a tumble, and red tide continued to menace the coast.

Road projects, human trafficking and Cuban refugees also made headlines.

Topping the news in Collier County, however, was the affordable housing shortage.

Here’s a look at the top 10 local stories of the year as voted by Naples Daily News editors.

1) Affordable housing gets serious attention

As 2006 began, the sizzling real estate market already had peaked. Thousand of employees who owned homes continued to cash out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits, heading to cheaper climes in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. Employers couldn’t replace them.

Would-be employees couldn’t find housing.

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Doctors, physical therapists, teachers and deputies took jobs only to quit after realizing the amount of house their paychecks could buy.

Workers who didn’t cash out carried heavier workloads. Those who rented doubled and tripled up in the few remaining apartments that didn’t convert to condos.

The community lost thousands of apartments to condo conversions. Most businesses ran short-staffed. Long waits, short tempers and bad service were the norm. “Can you hold, please?” became the 2006 mantra.

By year’s end, housing prices had declined but not enough to make market-rate housing affordable for the median-income earner.

By the final days of 2006, more than 1,000 condos were for sale for less than $250,000 - unheard of a year earlier.

Politicians, employers, local government staff and representatives had worked all year cooperatively on affordable housing solutions. The Collier County Commission approved increased densities to encourage developers to build affordable units.

State Rep. Mike Davis, R-Naples, sponsored legislation that led to the creation of public-private partnerships. The school district, Sheriff’s Office and hospitals applied to build a 300-unit development where half the units would be set aside for essential service personnel.

Meanwhile, for the first time, school enrollment declined statewide as parents left the state, looking for cheaper housing.

2) Real estate market stumbles

The once red-hot real estate market took a tumble in 2006 as the number of residential listings climbed and median home prices fell.

The market slowdown in Southwest Florida is blamed on many factors, including higher interest and mortgage rates and skyrocketing insurance premiums that have pushed up the cost of homes. It follows a national trend.

Investors, who purchased homes with plans to flip them for a quick profit before the cool-down, have flooded the local market with listings. Those listings include apartments-turned-condo.

There has been such a flurry of condo conversions here and around the country that some now are reverting to apartments in what has been coined the “great conversion reversion.”

Home builders have resorted to layoffs due to slow sales. A few have left the market.

The cool-down follows a five-year real estate boom that caused home prices to double, and in some cases triple. Median home prices appreciated 40 percent to 50 percent in 2005.

It’s now a buyer’s market, with sellers more eager to make a deal. The Naples MLS shows there is a 16-month supply of homes on the market.

Local Realtors hope to see more buyers returning to the market as the height of the busy winter season approaches. There are signs the market is picking up.

3) Human trafficking rises to surface, major case resolved

Human trafficking victims may be anywhere: nail salons, restaurants, dry-cleaning establishments, even your own neighborhood.

The seven-year-old sister of one of the victims a potential human trafficking case in South Florida peeks around a curtain in her home in San Rafael la Indepencia, a village located in the western highlands of Guatemala.

Photo by DAVID AHNTHOLZ, Daily News

The seven-year-old sister of one of the victims a potential human trafficking case in South Florida peeks around a curtain in her home in San Rafael la Indepencia, a village located in the western highlands of Guatemala.

In 2006, Southwest Floridians learned that this region has more than its fair share of trafficking victims and that there are ways to recognize a modern-day slave.

Local advocates and law enforcers have taken a lead role in uncovering slavery cases, helping victims and doing training about human trafficking.

For example, Anna Rodriguez, who founded and heads the Southwest Florida-based Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, formerly worked as victims’ advocate for the Collier Sheriff’s Office. She was instrumental in gaining victims’ trust in early trafficking cases and is often called to assist in victim interviews throughout Florida.

And state Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, successfully pushed for Florida lawmakers to set aside dollars for the coalition to train law enforcers about trafficking statewide.

A major Southwest Florida trafficking case concluded this year after 15 months. A federal judge in Fort Myers sentenced Fernando Pascual, 22, to 10 years in prison for harboring a sex slave from Guatemala.

As part of a plea agreement, Pascual pleaded guilty in March to forcing a 13-year-old girl to be his sex slave and do work around the house.

4) Big Cypress unveiled

Rural growth in Collier County took a possible leap into the future with the unveiling of big plans for a big chunk of land east of Golden Gate Estates.

The plans by large landowner Collier Enterprises would put 25,000 homes in a new town to be called Big Cypress on 8,000 acres of farmland surrounded by 14,000 acres of preserve.

The town is the second development proposed under the county’s landmark rural growth plan, the first being Ave Maria University and its companion town under construction farther east.

Under the growth plan, Collier Enterprises would earn development credits by setting aside the preserve and another 13,000 acres outside the town’s proposed borders.

The town would be built over 25 to 30 years, and work wouldn’t get started until 2009 or 2010. The plans need county approval and permits from various state and federal agencies.

The center of Big Cypress would be built in the middle of a loop created by realigning Oil Well Road and extending Randall Boulevard.

The company also is proposing an Interstate 75 interchange some two miles east of Everglades Boulevard that would connect with a new road that would meander north to Immokalee Road.

Collier Enterprises held a series of workshops to get public comment on everything from schools to the environment in the proposed town. A report is due out in early 2007.

5) Over-age student scandal

Immokalee’s Blandel Jean cheers after a teammate scored a goal during a game against Bartow High School in Immokalee on Feb. 7.

Photo by Tracy Boulian, Daily News

Immokalee’s Blandel Jean cheers after a teammate scored a goal during a game against Bartow High School in Immokalee on Feb. 7.

Immokalee High School student athletes paid the price, forfeiting three championship titles, when five over-age students were found attending and playing sports at the school last year.

Blandel Jean, 30, Josh Jean-Mary, 23, and Senil Ulysse, 20, were the original three over- age athletes uncovered in May. Documents obtained by the Daily News indicated two more athletes, 21-year-old Clotaire Joseph and 20-year-old Fredo Selbonne, also were over-age.

Immokalee High was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine - $1,000 for each of the original students discovered.

The Immokalee soccer team received a two-year probation and cannot participate in the post-season during that time. The soccer team also has to forfeit its two district championships from the past two seasons.

The football team received one year of probation and had to relinquish its 2005 district championship.

Principal Manny Touron, who admitted he was informed of Jean-Mary’s age and did nothing about it, was denied a raise for the 2006-07 school year.

School administrators also had to submit an athletic plan to the Collier County School Board detailing ways to prevent over-age students from attending school in the future.

6) Road projects approved, finish late

In 2006, Collier County approved one of its most controversial road projects ever - an eastward extension of Vanderbilt Beach Road.

Commissioners laid out a proposed corridor for the extension that involves buying out at least 19 homes, something unheard of in the county’s history. The county also will have to buy out hundreds of portions of backyards to complete the project along a 10-mile path from Olde Florida Golf Club out to DeSoto Boulevard.

Residents argued that the road project wasn’t needed to serve existing residents, but to cater to future development such as Ave Maria University and Collier Enterprise’s Big Cypress District, where tens of thousands of homes could potentially be built east of DeSoto Boulevard at the extension’s end.

County officials countered that the extension was crucial to helping out the road grid in the fast-growing Estates

Also in 2006, the county had problems finding contractors to bid on road projects and complete them on time. In some cases, bids came in as much as double the county’s initial estimates.

The Golden Gate Parkway overpass project was supposed to open in February, but that is expected to be delayed by several months.

A contractor widening Goodlette-Frank Road north of Golden Gate Parkway also was unable to finish the project in November as scheduled.

7) Congress fails to pass WRDA - again

For a piece of legislation, the road to passage is often a tricky, convoluted one.

Some bills pass. Some bills fail. And that’s the way it is.

But the failure of the Water Resources Development Act in December hit many particularly hard - especially in Southwest Florida, where environmentalists have been waiting more than six years for action. The bipartisan measure that contained $360 million for the Picayune Strand restoration project was approved by both the House and Senate in July. But it stalled in a conference committee where lawmakers in both chambers attempted to sort out their differences. And then - like many bills before it - the legislation died, with little explanation.

The bill would have allowed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct new waterway projects around the country and make modifications to existing structures that are in need of renovation.

In Southwest Florida, the bill would have allowed the federal government to join the state in restoring Southern Golden Gate Estates, a failed subdivision in eastern Collier County. In 2004, Gov. Jeb Bush announced a then-$1.5 billion plan to accelerate eight projects in the Everglades campaign, a list that included the $360 million job in the Collier subdivision.

Since then, the South Florida Water Management District has been filling in canals and tearing out miles of dead-end roads in an effort to restore sheet flow to the 55,000-acre swath. Returning water to its shallow path will improve the health of the Ten Thousand Islands estuary, experts say.

Congress hasn’t passed a water bill since 2000. When Congress reconvenes in January, lawmakers say they expect to take up the bill again. This time, they say, they hope the bill will finally go to President Bush for signature.

8) Thousands march in support of undocumented workers’ rights

In April, an estimated 80,000 immigrants and their supporters took to the streets to march in protest of a proposed law that would criminalize illegal immigrants.

A sea of immigrants dressed in white and their supporters clog Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers in April to protest proposed immigration reform legislation. The crowd had met at the Ortiz Flea Market parking lot and continued to grow as the march progressed. The Lee County Sheriff's Office estimated the crowd eventually reached 75,000 protesters.

Photo by ERIK KELLAR, Daily News

A sea of immigrants dressed in white and their supporters clog Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers in April to protest proposed immigration reform legislation. The crowd had met at the Ortiz Flea Market parking lot and continued to grow as the march progressed. The Lee County Sheriff's Office estimated the crowd eventually reached 75,000 protesters.

The marchers said they wanted amnesty for undocumented workers. Many skipped work or school in an effort to show how much the U.S. economy leans on immigrants.

Even though the march took place in Fort Myers, its impact was strongly felt in Collier.

About half of the student body at Immokalee High School skipped school to join parents, most of whom are day laborers in the agricultural industry, to advocate the legalization of undocumented immigrants.

Worker absences hurt businesses. Some restaurants were forced to close for the day.

9) Red tide menaces coast

Southwest Florida’s recurring bout with red tide was suspected of packing an especially lethal punch in 2006.

Scientists blame the toxic bloom of microscopic algae for a record-setting year for sea turtle deaths in Collier County and for an unusually large number of manatees found dead in the Ten Thousand Islands in November and December.

Sea turtle monitors counted at least 109 dead sea turtles in Collier County, besting the previous record of 106 in 2000.

In the remote waters south of Chokoloskee, crews with the National Park Service discovered 18 manatee carcasses between Nov. 9 and Dec. 7 in an area that averages just two reports of dead sea cows per year.

Initial tests of some of the manatees’ tissue led scientists to the conclusion that the manatees died after eating sea grass contaminated with red tide. The toxin also can concentrate in turtle food.

The red tide’s assault on the Southwest Florida coast began in Lee County in late June, when fishermen reported waters thick with dead fish.

The red tide moved south into Collier County, littering beaches with rotting fish and prompting the county to warn people with chronic respiratory illnesses to stay away from the beach.

Even after the beaches tested free of red tide, the algae bloom lingered in waters offshore, where it continued to wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem.

Evidence pinning down the cause of red tide has so far eluded researchers, but some suspect a link between the algae blooms and polluted runoff.

10) Refugees get first taste of freedom in Collier

In their quest for freedom, a total of 49 Cuban refugees came ashore in Collier County this year.

Cpl. Mike Peña, left, with the Marco Island Police Department, talks with seven of 20 undocumented Cubans who were found on land and detained just north of the Judge S.S. Jolley Bridge in August. Two boats suspected of aiding in the transport of the refugees were intercepted and held for evidence processing.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL, Daily News

Cpl. Mike Peña, left, with the Marco Island Police Department, talks with seven of 20 undocumented Cubans who were found on land and detained just north of the Judge S.S. Jolley Bridge in August. Two boats suspected of aiding in the transport of the refugees were intercepted and held for evidence processing.

The first group of 20 Cuban migrants made landfall at the north end of the Judge S.S. Jolley Bridge near Marco Island in August. A second group of 29 migrants, including a 2-year-old boy, landed in the upscale Port Royal community of Naples in mid-November.

Each group was taken to the Pembroke Pines Border Patrol station on Florida’s east coast to be interviewed by Border Patrol agents and then transferred to the Miami clinic operated by the state health department.

Once the migrants got the all-clear from their checkups, they were released and taken to local volunteer agencies for resettlement help as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cuban Haitian Entrant Program.

Under the United States’ so called “wet foot-dry foot” policy, most Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to remain, while those intercepted at sea are generally returned home - all 49 migrants who landed in Collier will stay in the U.S.

Two men were charged in the August smuggling operation. One of the suspects pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing, while the other will be going to a second trial in January after a mistrial earlier this month.

No one was charged in the November incident.

Staff writers Denise Zoldan, Laura Layden, Eric Staats, Jennifer Brannock, John Henderson, Amie Parnes, and Elysa Batista contributed to this report.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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