Safari-themed venue in rural Collier County passes permitting hurdle

— A safari-themed venue for special events in rural Collier County cleared a second permitting hurdle this morning.

The county's Planning Commission voted 7-0 to recommend that county commissioners approve a petition allowing aquaculture, exotic animal breeding and an agri-tourism attraction on about 20 acres on Inez Road in the North Belle Meade section of Golden Gate Estates.

Ngala (pronounced En-ya-la) is home to a long list of exotic animals that are put on display for events ranging from school field trips to elegant catered parties attended by as many as 1,000 people bused in from conventions at local hotels.

The attraction has stirred controversy since 2002, when county code inspectors cited Ngala for expanding without proper permits and environmental reviews.

Nobody attended this morning's hearing to object to Ngala, although Defenders of Wildlife Florida representative Elizabeth Fleming raised questions in an e-mail to Planning Commission Chairman Mark Strain about allowing Ngala to house animals that could increase interactions with endangered Florida panthers.

In 2007, a panther killed goats at Ngala during a string of attacks on domestic animals in rural Collier County that prompted questions about growth moving further into panther habitat.

The Planning Commission recommendation caps the number of visitors to the site at any one time to 1,000 and limits the number of events that go past 8 p.m. to five per week and a total of 150 days per year.

A requirement that visitors get to Ngala only by limousine, bus or commercial van is meant to limit traffic to the site, and a prohibition on removing fill from the site is meant to guard against turning aquaculture into an earth-mining operation.

Strain said he voted in favor of the project, not because he thought Golden Gate Estates needed more development, but because county codes do not allow an operation like Ngala anywhere else.

Strain warned against Ngala growing into something more, citing Knott's Berry Farms, an amusement park up the road from where he used to live in California.

"They started out small too," Strain said.

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