Reworked Mirasol project approved by Collier’s environmental council

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— A controversial golf course community started a second run Wednesday through a Collier County development review with a win.

The county’s Environmental Advisory Council voted 6-2 to recommend that county commissioners approve the revised Mirasol project, which has been in the middle of a wetlands permitting battle since 2001.

Environmental groups say the project will destroy what is left of a flowway in northern Collier County, harm water quality downstream in the Wiggins Pass estuary and take away foraging habitat for endangered woodstorks whose largest U.S. rookery is at nearby Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

Mirasol backers, though, say the project does its best to avoid wetlands and that proposed restoration plans will improve water quality and woodstork habitat.

Advisory council members Nick Penniman, past board chairman at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and Judith Hushon, a Conservancy policy volunteer, voted no Wednesday, saying the project destroys too many wetlands and violates the county’s growth plan.

“I think this thing could be done a lot better,” Penniman said.

The project next goes to the county’s Planning Commission for review March 19 before a final vote by Collier County commissioners, set for April 28.

The new project keeps the same 799 units and two 18-hole golf courses from an original 2001 approval plan but reworks the way it handles water flows after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected an original permit for the project.

Environmental groups lost a legal challenge to a South Florida Water Management District permit for the new Mirasol proposal but have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Corps of Engineers permit for the new project.

While the developer and environmental groups battled over the state and federal permits, the county’s original approval expired in 2006.

Mirasol sought an extension until 2010 but later agreed to bring the project back through county reviews as part of a deal by which Mirasol got vested rights to the 799 units in exchange for paying to speed up work at the intersection of Collier Boulevard and Immokalee Road.

Mirasol attorney Rich Yovanovich told the Environmental Advisory Council that environmental groups are using the new county review to remake their case against the old Mirasol project.

“They lost this argument,” Yovanovich said.

Environmental advocates, though, cited a new wrinkle in the county’s growth plan since the original Mirasol approval.

In 2007, county commissioners set a 2010 deadline to write watershed management plans, including for the watershed where Mirasol is proposed to be built.

In the interim, the county growth plan requires development to avoid direct impact to wetlands in some watersheds or ensure that any direct impact is minimized and the overall function of the watershed is maintained.

Conservancy of Southwest Florida government relations manager Nicole Ryan said she was “disappointed” the Environmental Advisory Council did not use the interim rules to recommend a stop to Mirasol.

“We see this as kind of a test for the county,” Ryan said.

Yovanovich said the interim rules do not apply to the watershed where Mirasol is proposed to be built. Even if it did, the project meets the interim standards, he said.

Mirasol would destroy almost 590 acres of wetlands but would preserve 323 acres at the project, preserve another 109 acres next to the project and buy mitigation bank credits.

Environmental advocates say the wetlands that would be lost are shallow wetlands that are quickly disappearing in Southwest Florida.

Those wetlands are especially important as a source of fish for woodstorks as they prepare to nest every winter, Collier County Audubon Society and Audubon of Florida policy advocate Brad Cornell said.

Without shallow wetlands to forage for food, woodstorks are forced to feed in less productive roadside ditches and golf courses while they wait for deeper wetlands to dry down and provide easier access to food, Cornell said.

The wait delays woodstork nesting and risks ruining the nesting season as it runs up against the onset of the rainy season, Cornell said.

He cited figures from Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary that show that woodstorks, on average, fledge 3,107 chicks when they begin nesting in November. They fledge 4,600 chicks when they begin nesting in December, according to the data.

A January nesting start, though, means fledgling fewer than 1,000 chicks and even fewer if nesting starts in February, according to sanctuary data.

Mirasol’s biological consultant Tim Hall said opportunities for woodstorks to forage in Mirasol’s wetlands are “very low” because the project site is choked by invasive melaleuca trees.

The EAC vote included a recommendation that Mirasol submit water quality monitoring results to Collier County.

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