Collier County’s shaky economy nearly stalled a program of intersection improvements that was highly touted in November 2007.
However, Collier commissioners agreed Tuesday to give developers and government officials a little more time to work out a new agreement.
The intersection of U.S. 41 and Collier Boulevard East was designated in 2005 for vast improvements including widening, more lanes and better signs. But that was when developers were flush, and a number of residential and commercial projects were in the early planning stages.
Besides Lowe’s, companies that announced future developments in the vicinity included Super Target, ABC Liquors, Habitat for Humanity, Naples Reserve, and Naples Motorcoach Resort.
In late 2007, developers and county officials worked out a multimillion-dollar developers contribution agreement that would enable Collier to encompass the new businesses and homes.
A lot has changed economically since then. Financial snags have caused most of the partners in the negotiated contribution agreement to drop out.
Tuesday, commissioners asked for more information from attorney Rich Yovanovich, who said his clients – including Lowe’s – were still ready to move forward with $8.2 million in contributions.
Problem is, while commissioners want the intersection improvements as well as the new businesses, county transportation leaders said the proposed sum isn’t enough money to make the changes required by state concurrency standards.
Concurrency is a term used by planners to ensure that adequate roads, utilities and government services increase proportionally with new development.
Collier Transportation Planning Manager Nick Casalanguida, County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow and Transportation Director Norm Feder spent about two years, starting in 2005, negotiating agreements with nine different developers, to widen U.S. 41 for two miles southeast of Collier Boulevard.
In early March, commissioners terminated the November 2007 developer agreement, and asked employees to bring back a new document.
“I tried to unturn every stone I could to get this done,” Casalanguida said Tuesday.
While he wouldn’t say the project was dead, he admitted that he just doesn’t have enough information to offer the Florida Department of Community Affairs.
The irony was that county officials would love to find a viable project to create jobs and improve the economy, Casalanguida said.
The road construction project would create jobs for contractors, not to mention jobs after the new projects open.
Yovanovich said he was not asking the county to sacrifice concurrency.
“The residential players can’t come up with their cost of intersection improvements, but there are commercial developers that are still interested in spending money in Collier County,” Yovanovich said.
“Will there be enough right of way money there? No one knows the answer to that question,” Yovanovich said.
Lowe’s is ready to pick up its construction permit, so the county would be getting that money, he said.
If a study gets underway, the county will, at least, have a design for the ultimate intersection improvements, even if they all can’t be immediately accomplished, he said.
Likewise, moving forward will stimulate the economy and put Collier residents back to work.
“Frankly, there’s just not enough money beyond $8.2 million,” Yovanovich said.
Noting that the intersection is failing, Commissioner Frank Halas said the only way the problem would be properly addressed is to build a flyover there, which Yovanovich said the developers’ agreement would ultimately pay for.
Commission Chairwoman Donna Fiala mused on that.
As some of the Kite Realty projects under development come in, and as Target moves in, there will be more money in that pot, Fiala said.
And, since at least 6,000 planned dwelling units have no prospect of being built in the next five years, the county’s concurrency balance won’t immediately shift, she said.
“It may be 10 years for some of these paper dwelling units to come on board,” Fiala said.
Getting that Lowe’s in there is vital to prompt other businesses to come in, commissioners agreed.
“Lowe’s is the catalyst. If we want Super Target, we got to find a way to get this moving forward,” Fiala said.
Casalanguida said he may be able to worth with Collier County’s bus system so employees and shoppers wouldn’t create too much more traffic.
Commissioner Fred Coyle asked if the county could tax the people who are contributing to the future concurrency problem – allowing for vesting some developments – and bond out on that future revenue stream, and Casalanguida said that is a possibility.
Fiala noted that the county hasn’t received any state help on the project, and Feder agreed he would have to push harder on the state and federal transportation departments.
Feder said he needs to see a traffic impact study.
While the county is not looking to hold up Lowe’s, the county is also not planning on sidestepping the state concurrency requirements, Feder said.
However, the $8.2 million isn’t enough to make it work, said Casalanguida, offering to bring a menu of alternatives back to commissioners.
Yovanovich proposed a smaller developer consortium to pay for the initial design.
“That would be one agreement that could go forward,” he said.
Asked if it can be accomplished, Klatzkow told commissioners that if Yovanovich’s proposed numbers are right, they’ll have a new developers agreement at the next commission meeting.
While Collier County leaders accepted that deal, in concept, on Tuesday, they have to wait to see what employees can work out.
In past discussions, many residents, business owners and county employees have pointed out that traffic through that intersection does not flow effectively.
There are currently 25 travel lanes at that intersection, the greatest compilation on U.S. 41 heading southeast toward Everglades City, Marco Island and Golden Gate.
There are eight travel lanes heading in the general direction of Miami: two lanes turn right onto Collier toward Marco; three turn left onto Collier toward Interstate 75; and three head straight across Collier.
Once they cross Collier, those three lanes contract into one lane within 100 to 200 feet.
In the opposite direction, U.S. 41 is a one-lane road until about 100 to 200 feet before it intersects with Collier.
At that point, it begins to fan out until it spans five lanes at Collier: one turning right (north) onto Collier toward I-75; one turning left (south) onto Collier toward Marco; and three heading straight ahead toward Naples.