Collier Enterprises reintroduces plan for town in rural Collier County

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Collier Enterprises may build a new town in rural Collier County after all.

The developer has reintroduced a town that would link its three villages.

When the company and the county couldn't see eye-to-eye on its proposal to build a new 4,000-acre town back in 2019, it quietly pulled the application for the long-planned development east of Golden Gate Estates — going under the name Rural Lands West.

Instead of the new town, Collier Enterprises has pursued a trio of distinct villages. The county has already green-lighted one of those villages, known as Rivergrass.

County commissioners are slated to make a final decision on the other two villages in late April.

Tomatoes grow in an agricultural field on the proposed site of Rivergrass Village near Oil Well Road on Monday, January 20, 2020.

Each of the villages and the town will require state and federal permit approvals, some of which have been secured.

Collier Enterprises scrapped its original plan to build one large, cohesive town, similar to Ave Maria, more than 1½ years ago after getting pushback from the county on the finer details of the proposed development.

Now, it appears that the county wants the town back, so Collier Enterprises has worked closely with county planners for about a year to come up with a modified plan designed to unify the villages and to make them more self-reliant, in an effort to reduce their impact on surrounding communities — and the rest of the county, said Pat Utter, a senior vice president of real estate for Collier Enterprises. 

The town would also create jobs and improve traffic, he said, among other benefits.

In case you missed it:Rivergrass Village lawsuit scheduled for hearings that could impact case's path

More like this:Collier commissioners approve proposed changes to rural growth plan

The new town will be discussed publicly for the first time at Thursday's Planning Commission meeting, where one of the two remaining villages, known as Longwater, will be before the advisory board for a vote and recommendation to Collier County commissioners.

The afternoon sun shines on an upland area south of Lake Trafford that would become part of a Stewardship Sending Area, which would be preserved and maintained in perpetuity under the Rivergrass Village proposal, on Monday, January 20, 2020.

Collier Enterprises will have to go through a separate county approval process for the town and anticipates filing a formal application for it within a year. First, the developer will seek approval of a framework agreement by county commissioners.

Town would add large commercial development

The town would add about 1.3 million square feet of commercial development on roughly 515 acres that would be easily accessible to the residents of all three villages. For a comparison, that's roughly the size of the Coconut Point shopping mall in Estero, Utter pointed out.

"It's big, really big," he said, with emphasis.

Combined, there would be about 1.5 million square feet of commercial development, including what's already planned in each of the villages.

While big, the commercial footprint isn't as large as first proposed. In the original plan for a town, it equaled about 1.9 million square feet, but the developer has since sold off a chunk of its land — about 5,000 acres — to Gargiulo for farming, so that's no longer doable, Utter said. 

More:Rivergrass lawsuit filing, internal county memo raise conflict of interest questions

By developing a town, Collier Enterprises will be able to create more walkable and bikeable villages, Utter said, so they'll generate less traffic. There would be more services for residents, who are expected to be a mix of full- and part-time.

With the addition of the town, the developer has pledged to meet stricter rules for development in the Rural Lands Stewardship Area, or RLSA, even though they're not in place yet because they still require the state's approval.

The stewardship area encompasses 185,000 acres around Immokalee east of Golden Gate Estates with the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to the south and the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest to the north. It allows developers to build towns and villages on property with lower conservation value, in exchange for preserving more environmentally sensitive land.

Based on the new development rules for the area, Collier Enterprises plans to reserve 88 acres for affordable housing — translating to as many as 880 units. The developer would sell the land at a discount to the county, which would then find a builder, Utter said.

Christian Spilker, vice president of land management for Collier Enterprises, points to a map of the proposed Rivergrass Village near Oil Well Road on Monday, January 20, 2020.

The commercial development in the town would provide room for offices, restaurants and retail, as well as maybe a pharmacy, a grocery, a theater and a hardware store. Parts of the land are already set aside for an elementary school, utilities and a 43-acre community park, which the county would own.

Utter: 'We're going to save the "best of the best"'

Besides providing needed services to residents of the three villages, Collier Enterprises estimates the town would generate about 6,000 permanent jobs, making it an employment center in the county.

The entire development — including the villages and town — would total about 3,500 acres, while still preserving more than 12,000 acres at no cost to the taxpayers, Utter said.

"The land has been farmed for decades. Where there are pristine areas, we're going to preserve those. We're going to save the 'best of the best,'" he said.

While county commissioners have yet to consider the town concept, Utter said he thinks at least three of them — or a majority — will support it.

Collier Enterprises has worked with three environmental groups on its town plan — Defenders of Wildlife, Audubon and the Florida Wildlife Federation — and they're all behind it, Utter said. 

"It's a compromise," he said. "We can't do everything they want and make it cost effective." 

Aerial of the site for the former Rural Lands West project, which was scrapped.

In an email, Meredith Budd, regional policy director for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said: "The town concept will certainly have a much greater benefit to the community at large since towns are the most diverse form of development that can occur in the RLSA— they are required to have a full range of housing types and a mix of uses as well as services and infrastructure to support the town."

However, she said, the federation liked the original plan for a town without separate villages better and it's disappointed that the county and the developer couldn't reach an agreement to move that forward.

"When it comes to trying to balance development with preservation of our natural resources, its always best to look at the whole picture," Budd said. "This can better achieve landscape-scale conservation and connectivity.

Aerial view of a portion of the Rural Lands Stewardship Area.

One of the primary goals is to ensure the overall development pays for itself, so it doesn't become a burden on the county, and an economic study showed it will be fiscally neutral at the time of build out, due in large part to the millions Collier Enterprises will pay in impact fees, Utter said. 

The county charges impact fees on new construction to help pay for new streets, water and sewer systems and other critical infrastructure needed to support growth.

Up to 9,250 residences could be built in the villages and town as now proposed, including the affordable housing.

If all goes as planned, the first homes could start coming out of the ground in the first village in 2023. The infrastructure, from the roads to the water and sewer systems, must be built first to support it.

Commercial development would follow the residential development, starting when there are enough rooftops and strong enough demand for it.

The build-out for the residential portion is projected to take 10 to 12 years. 

While Collier Enterprises continues to advance its plans for the three villages and now a town, it still faces opposition from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. 

Last March, the conservancy sued the county in Circuit Court over its approval of the developer's first village, Rivergrass, spanning 1,000 acres along Oil Well Road, contending that it's inconsistent with the county's growth management plan.

Last month, Judge Hugh Hayes denied a motion by Collier Enterprises to dismiss the lawsuit. The developer joined the suit on the county's side last spring.

Collier Enterprises has asked the judge to reconsider his ruling. A hearing on that request is scheduled for Thursday.

If the case isn't dismissed, a trial is scheduled for March 23.

The conservancy opposes the developer's other villages, Longwater and Bellmar, for the same reasons it's challenged Rivergrass.

In a statement, the environmental advocacy organization said: "The villages, if approved, would result in devastating impacts to the endangered Florida panther, as the projects would destroy over 2,000 acres of the species’ last remaining habitat."

The grassroots group also argues all the villages are "contrary to smart growth principles," and that the developer has failed to show how the villages would cover the costs that the county would incur for their infrastructure and services. 

On top of that, the conservancy said it's "extremely concerning that discussions between Collier County and Collier Enterprises for a town have been behind closed doors," and that it appears the proposed framework agreement would "bypass the normal public process."

"In a nutshell, what this means is that there are fewer opportunities for the public to have a voice in creating the town plan and there would be no opportunity for the planning commission to review and comment on the agreement before it is signed," the conservancy stated. "Even worse, based upon a draft of the town agreement, many of Collier Enterprises’ supposed 'commitments' are completely discretionary, meaning they can and will have no legal obligation to implement key aspects of their town proposal. This is a very bad deal for Collier County and its current residents and taxpayers."