Settlement looms in suit over Collier's limits on mining in North Belle Meade

A large scale blast, composed of approximately 21 holes filled with 300 pounds of explosive emulsion each, goes off Monday afternoon at a Youngquist Brothers rock mine off of Alico Road in Lee County in October 2009.  The blast was witnessed by members of the public and Lee County officials as part of an ongoing zoning battle to open a new mine off of Corkscrew road.  Michel Fortier/Staff

Photo by MICHEL FORTIER

A large scale blast, composed of approximately 21 holes filled with 300 pounds of explosive emulsion each, goes off Monday afternoon at a Youngquist Brothers rock mine off of Alico Road in Lee County in October 2009. The blast was witnessed by members of the public and Lee County officials as part of an ongoing zoning battle to open a new mine off of Corkscrew road. Michel Fortier/Staff

— A proposed settlement of a long-standing $92 million property rights lawsuit against Collier County has drawn the ire of environmental groups and the developer of a nearby commerce park.

The 2008 lawsuit pits a county government ban on rock mining against preservation of habitat for endangered Florida panthers and red-cockaded woodpeckers in North Belle Meade, part of rural Collier County north of Interstate 75 and east of Collier Boulevard.

County commissioners got their first look at the deal this past week and voted unanimously to send it to the Collier County Planning Commission for review. County commissioners met in a closed-door session, as is allowed by state law when litigation is involved, to discuss the proposal but took no position on it.

Attorney John Vega, who represents the landowners and mining company, said all sides benefit from the settlement too much for county commissioners to not adopt it.

"It just doesn't make sense on any level (to reject the proposal)," Vega said Thursday. "I just don't see it."

In the 2008 case, Naples doctor Francis D. Hussey Jr. and his wife, Mary Pat, and mining company Winchester Lakes Corp. sued the county over its landmark 2002 rural growth plan because it forbids rock mining on 966 acres the Husseys own in North Belle Meade.

The lawsuit said the plan amounted to an illegal taking of their land and that the Husseys are owed damages for a loss of mining rights that wouldn't be adequately compensated by a program through which owners of preserved land can sell or transfer development rights to other spots.

In 2011, Collier Circuit Judge Hugh Hayes dismissed the lawsuit and a similar one filed by Sean Hussey, the Husseys' son, and others in 2009. The case is pending at the 2nd District Court of Appeal but is on hold for settlement talks.

The Florida Wildlife Federation and the Collier Audubon Society, which had intervened in the lawsuits, walked away from settlement talks because the environment was not getting its due, said Nancy Payton, the Federation's field representative in Southwest Florida.

"I look forward to the Planning Commission exposing the shortcomings of this settlement, which is really a sell-out," she said Thursday.

At the heart of the proposed settlement is a swap of land-use designations in the 2002 plan between the Hussey property and 2,576 acres owned along Immokalee Road near Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary by the State Road 846 Land Trust.

The proposed settlement lists the trust's co-trustees as Michael Boran and Ronald Brown. A 2011 application to put the controversial Jones Mine on the trust's land lists the Hussey family as beneficial owners.

The swap would mean a roughly equal exchange of preservation land and development land between the two sites, but environmental groups say the newly preserved land has less valuable wildlife habitat than the preserve land that is lost under the deal.

Environmental groups also object to the deal allowing 115 acres of excavation on another 440 acres of Hussey land in North Belle Meade that would still have a quasi-preservation designation.

The deal also includes provisions for building new roads in North Belle Meade, selling road and fill to county government at a discount to the county, connecting excavated lakes in North Belle Meade to regional water management systems and leasing two sites for county drinking water wells.

The City Gate Commerce Park, which sits west of the Hussey land, has objected to the proposed settlement over concerns about heavy truck traffic from the proposed mine.

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