Collier Planning Commission recommends in favor of a new town in rural Collier County

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

A new town proposed in the rural stretches of Collier County has taken a baby step forward.

On Thursday, the county's Planning Commission voted 6-0 in support of the town — at least in theory. 

The unanimous decision came after about two hours of debate and discussion.

While county staffers brought the town concept forward for information only, the council treated the presentation more like an action item, asking pointed questions, deliberating the purpose and value of the plan, and hearing from a handful of public speakers before voting. 

Collier Enterprises has proposed a town that would serve its three planned villages, east of Golden Gate Estates, but it has yet to submit a formal application for one to the county.

Instead, the landowners have worked closely with county staffers to come up with what's described as a framework agreement, spelling out many of the town's details.

From our archives:Rivergrass, Longwater and now Bellmar: Collier planners recommend approval of another rural village

More:Collier County Planning Commission recommends approval of controversial rural village

"Collier Enterprises is pleased to have earned a unanimous vote of support from the Planning Commission for the Town of Big Cypress agreement. We look forward to the county commission’s review and appreciate the hard work of county staff to help negotiate the agreement and bring it forward," said Patrick Utter, a senior vice president of real estate for Collier Enterprises, in a statement.

New town would include affordable housing, elementary school and community park

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

On top of that, the town would provide nearly 900 additional affordable housing units, as well as another 500 single-family homes at market rate.

Parts of the land are set aside for an elementary school, utilities and a 43-acre community park, which the county would own.

A map shows the location of three proposed villages in rural Collier County.

The Collier County Commission is slated to vote on the town agreement May 25, the same day they're to consider final approval of two, out of the three, villages separately. 

County commissioners have already given a thumbs up to the first village, known as Rivergrass, but it still faces a legal challenge by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

While planning commissioners voted to support the town in theory, the decision didn't come easily for some of them.

Edwin Fryer, the advisory board's chairman, said he had "serious misgivings" about his favorable vote.

"I've struggled with it and I continue to struggle with it," he said. "At the end of the day, though, I believe it would be a better outcome." 

Planning Commissioner Robert Klucik, a resident and fan of Ave Maria, the county's first town concept, made the motion to support the preliminary agreement.

He challenged opponents' arguments that the town wouldn't meet the county's requirements for a compact development with a town core. 

"It seems like it's anything but sprawl," he said.

Commissioner Joe Schmitt seconded Klucik's motion. 

In case you missed it:Legal fight over Rivergrass Village in eastern Collier County headed for trial

During the discussions, several planning commissioners, including Fryer, questioned whether Collier Enterprises was trying to bend the rules by seeking approval of its villages first, while promising to build a town later.

The landowners' attorney Rich Yovanovich defended his clients, arguing that by taking this unconventional approach Collier Enterprises will not only meet, but exceed county requirements under the land development code and growth management plan.

"Actually, you are doing better," Yovanovich said.

As currently proposed, he said, the town would provide more affordable housing and preserve more land than the rules require in the environmentally sensitive Rural Lands Stewardship Area, or RLSA.

County staffers agreed, saying Collier Enterprises won't get away with anything, including paying its fair share of impact fees. The one-time fees charged on new construction help pay for everything from roads and parks to water and sewer systems.

The RLSA 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 the most environmentally sensitive land through a credit system.

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

Town plan faces challenges over environmental impact and infrastructure

County staff and its elected leaders, however, continued to express their strong desire for a more self-sustaining town. So, Klucik said he saw no reason to point a finger — or to poke — at the landowners when they're just trying to piece one back together and to salvage "what everybody sees as a good idea."

The town plan continues to face organized opposition from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the League of Women Voters of Collier County.

April Olson

April Olson, a senior environmental planning specialist at the Conservancy, said the rules for the RLSA were never intended to create an "after-the-fact" town. The villages on their own, she said, will have "town-size impacts," and there are too many unanswered questions about the town plan to understand the consequences.

The land proposed for the town is "entirely in panther habitat," she said, so the Conservancy opposes its location.

Additionally, Olson said it's unclear when the town core would get built, which she sees as critical to lessening the impact of the town and its nearby villages not only on the environment and wildlife, but the county's roads and other infrastructure.

Judith Hushon, a board member on the League of Women Voters' environmental affairs committee, agreed.

"The town core is supposed to be the center of town," she said. "Without a town core, a town isn't a town."

Brad Cornell, a policy associate for Audubon Western Everglades and Audubon Florida, said his group generally supports the town conversion, "understanding that there will be a full hearing and review when that application comes forward."

"The good part of this is a town generally is more sustainable, diverse and functional, as a smarter urban development form," he said.

Audubon supports more affordable housing, but most of all it likes the potential to preserve and protect 12,200 acres of land, including the restoration of 2,600 acres of wetlands and panther habitats.

"These are all in Camp Keais Strand, which is a vital part of the CREW Florida Forever Project that the state has tried for 30 years to buy and never succeeded. This is a huge win," Cornell said.

In the framework agreement, Collier Enterprises has committed to filing a formal application for a town within a year of the county commission's approval of Longwater and Bellmar, its other proposed village.

After a more detailed review by county staff, the proposed town would go before the Planning Commission again for a recommendation before reaching the County Commission for a final vote.

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.