By Paula Brothers, President
Matt McLean, President-Elect
David Tetzlaff, Executive Director
The Naples Zoo
By now, many of you have heard that a component of the Collier County Gordon River Greenway Park project impacts the pond along Goodlette-Frank Road. The pond has been an iconic part of our history for decades and we share your concerns for its future.
It is important to understand that while we are the most affected by this issue, this is a Collier County project and as a non-profit organization that leases land from Collier County, we are just one of many partners.
The Gordon River Greenway was highlighted in the 2004 election to "Save the Zoo and So Much More" and includes 70 acres east of the zoo purchased by that vote. The Greenway project is a cooperative project of government, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and citizens. A panel of partners meets regularly to discuss the Gordon River Greenway Park issues.
From its inception this situation has involved many experts and engineers in various roles trying to work out an entry solution through the real world complexities involving current county and state agency requirements of transportation, fire, public health and safety, water management, and others. These partners continue to meet to review potential alternative options.
The plan was never to pave the pond and park a few cars on that small space. The county's engineering consultants' design was for zoo, Greenway and some Conservancy traffic to pass through the signalized intersection at Fleischmann Boulevard. This main entry road would turn south through the pond area leading vehicles to an expanded parking area south of the gift shop. The other vehicle entry points would be closed, as would be the parking lots immediately north and south of the pond.
From schematics the engineers presented, we understood the western portion of the pond as well as additional space to the north would need to be turned into a dry retention pond and the large ficus tree south of the pond would be removed. While the dry retention ponds appeared non-negotiable, we brought in an arborist and covered the consulting costs to have the engineers redraw the plans to save the large ficus tree along the road.
The county had nine meetings where the plans were available to the public and all the Greenway partners to view that showed the new county road through the pond with the western portion of the pond labeled as dry retention. At the time, the zoo was not presented any alternate option. Saving the western portion of the pond was not raised by anyone as an issue, nor did we understand it to be a possibility — much like the widening of Goodlette-Frank Road that reduced the pond size years ago.
Independent of the new entry road issue, the pond is manmade and relies on a well and pump from the 1950s. Current South Florida Water Management District regulations require this water use be brought up to current standards. This could mean the pump may not be available to maintain the water levels in the future. Likewise, biologists would not classify this pond with exotic species as a wildlife conservation priority.
Because attendance has increased over 78 percent since 2001 with no significant change in parking, the zoo's strategic plan consultants, the Strategic Plan Committee, a blue ribbon panel of experts, master plan consultants and the zoo's national accreditation inspectors unanimously identified the Naples Zoo entrance and its associated parking as a top priority to improve guest satisfaction and public safety. And that wasn't even factoring any Greenway or Conservancy access traffic. On many days, over 2,000 people per day struggle to park in the zoo's 319 parking spaces – and on Free Saturdays, the number of guests is often more than 4,000. The new parking area will nearly double the number of available spaces.
While some have wondered about parking across the street as a long-term solution, having families cross six lanes of traffic is not viable for safety reasons. Besides which, our neighbors need the parking spaces at the same times the zoo does.
We are awaiting results of the various stakeholders to reassess the alternate plans. Alternatives may require very significant public expense to taxpayers and negatively impact surrounding neighbors.
As the pond is a part of our history that we greatly value, we are highly hopeful that an affordable consensus answer to maintain all or part of the pond can be found and we will continue to work toward finding a viable solution.
Following her career in human resources at Ernst & Young in Cleveland, Brothers has served on boards for the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus Symphony Orchestra and American Cancer Society. She also served on the board of Inniswood Metro Gardens in Columbus as well as The Wilds, a large zoological facility in Ohio.
McLean, who has degrees in environmental science, is a senior engineer and project manager for Agnoli, Barber, & Brundage. A specialty is site development of underground infrastructure for commercial single-family, golf course and multi-family development. He is chair of the Gene Doyle Memorial Foundation Fishing Tournament.