Lee County commissioners last month said they will not buy the some land east of Bonita Springs, south of the Kehl Canal.
Later that same day, Feb. 12, the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District, said it wouldn’t either. That’s wonderful news for landowners in that area — sections 32 and 33 — who have clung to their property since the district received a condemnation order in 2002.
For those who sold out - the district has paid $242,300 for 39.5 total acres there - it’s not good news.
“I talked to my dad and he’s ecstatic,” said Shane Snell, an East Bonita resident who made yet another trip to West Palm Beach for the district meeting.
“It’s been a long time coming and we’ve worked hard. I cry and I feel bad for the 44 families who lost their homes.”
That’s the 44 homes the district bought farther east. Snell and a dozen homeowners in the newly freed area will apparently get to keep their homes.
“We have had these landowners in limbo for a long time,” board member Jerry Montgomery said. “It pains me to sit here and listen to these guys talk about their land being tied up. We have a responsibility - a moral responsibility - to either release them or shoot them and put them out of their misery. “I’m amazed how nice they’ve been. I’d be cussing at us.”
The district launched what it calls the Southern CREW Critical Restoration Project after severe flooding during the 1990s. Studies said more water should be stored east of Bonita Springs.
The plan was to buy not quite 4,800 acres and remove all the roads and ditches - and homes - to return the land to its original swampy state. The cost was estimated at around $14 million. The district has spent $34 million buying 3,648 acres already, and finishing even the smaller project is expected to cost another $16 million.
The land now excluded would have cost another $40 million, said Everglades Restoration Director Larry Gerry.
Bill Cobb said he’d like to see the district exclude even more. Cobb has 5 acres in section 34, directly east of section 33. The section line is two miles east of Bonita Grande Drive, the city limits. The sections end a mile north off Bonita Beach Road.
“In 2003 it was stated in court that all the property now being taken out was needed,” Cobb said. “You’ve taken 44 homes. After 12 years where does it stop?”
Gerry said the district had always considered options that did not include that land on the other side of the canal.
“For $40 million plus relocation costs it may not be worth the benefit,” he said.
Not everyone supported there change. Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida asked that it at least be delayed until an update of a south county watershed study is finished.
But board members said they were disappointed that advice was all the Conservancy and other groups were offering.
“For the last nine months we’ve been asking for help,” board member Melissa Meeker said. “I’m disappointed the Conservancy hasn’t stepped up.”
Charles Dauray, the west coast member on the board, echoed that, pointing to the other groups that also signed a Conservancy letter.
“I look at these groups and there’s several scores of millions of dollars represented here,” he said. “The Estero Council of Community Leaders, the Brooks Concerned Citizens, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the Responsible Growth Management Coalition. I see an unsigned zero on the check, and nobody else here from Lee County to make a pledge.”
In fact county commissioners had already opted out of a deal the district had offered to buy the land. At a workshop Thursday morning county commissioners decided to keep their own conservation land program - Conservation 2020 - focused on other land.
County lands director Karen Forsyth told commissioners the county has 16 parcels on the radar, parcels it will take all the Conservation 2020 tax proceeds for the next three to five years to buy.
“We could not accomplish anything more than we’re already doing with the water management district,” she said.
The Conservation 2020 committee will discuss whether to even accept nominations for purchase from the district or from anyone else.
Those already under consideration carry a $140 million asking price. Forsyth said the purchase price will likely be much less.