Conservancy of Southwest Florida files appeal after losing Rivergrass legal challenge
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida as anticipated has appealed a judge's unfavorable decision on its challenge of a proposed rural village known as Rivergrass.
The nonprofit environmental group filed its appeal Thursday in the 2nd District Court of Appeal with unanimous support from its board.
In a statement, Rob Moher, the Conservancy's president and CEO, said: "We stand dedicated in our commitment to ensure that the proposed Rivergrass project complies with the legal requirements and intent of the Collier County Growth Management Plan."
The grassroots organization argues the lower court ruled on Rivergrass "without allowing strong evidence to be heard" that demonstrates the village will not only worsen traffic congestion but cost county taxpayers millions of dollars in services.
"Furthermore, the court declined to hear evidence that Rivergrass Village fails to comply with the Collier County Land Development Code," Moher said. "We believe our concerns on these issues must be heard."
At trial, Collier Circuit Judge Hugh Hayes limited the Conservancy's arguments to how it thought the project violated the county's Growth Management Plan, or comprehensive plan.
As a result, the Conservancy's testimony and claims had to be based strictly on the approved uses — or the density or intensity of uses — in the controversial Rivergrass development.
Judge on Rivergrass case: Defendants 'clearly won'
After a five-day, non-jury trial in May, Hayes ruled from the bench in favor of Collier County and Collier Enterprises, the landowner.
The landowner joined the case in support of the county after the Conservancy filed its suit in March of last year, months after the county commission's approval of the proposed 1,000-acre village along Oil Well Road east of Golden Gate Estates.
In his ruling from the bench, Hayes cut to the chase. The defendants, he said, "clearly won their case" based on strong arguments, evidence and witnesses.
The judge's written opinion, which followed a few weeks later, shed more light on his decision. He discredited the Conservancy's experts and poked holes in their testimony.
A representative for Collier Enterprises declined to comment on the appeal, which the company expected.
Collier Enterprises has obtained county approvals to build Rivergrass and two other villages nearby as well as secured support from county commissioners to pursue a town that would link all of the developments, an idea that also faces some opposition.
While the Conservancy has not filed lawsuits over the two other villages, known as Bellmar and Longwater, planned by Collier Enterprises the group continues to oppose them for the same reasons it's fighting Rivergrass.
Conservancey: Rivergrass will be 'detrimental to the Florida panther'
The Conservancy argues that the trio of villages will be "detrimental to the Florida panther" on top of the villages' negative impacts on traffic and taxpayers.
In a nutshell, the group contends Rivergrass represents the antithesis of what should be built in what's known as the Rural Lands Stewardship Area, or RLSA.
The stewardship area encompasses 185,000 acres around Immokalee, with the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to the south and the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest to the north.
The RLSA program allows developers to build more intense towns and villages on property with lower conservation value to preserve more environmentally sensitive land through a credit system. The program is designed to prevent urban sprawl, addressing state concerns about the protection of wildlife and wetlands in Collier County dating back to the 1990s.
"The pursuit of our mission and science-based policy has guided us through this process as we legally challenge these precedent-setting issues that will negatively impact an extensive amount of environmentally sensitive lands," the Conservancy's Moher said. "We will continue to serve our community by protecting our land, water and wildlife and securing a better future for ourselves and future generations."
The Conservancy isn't the only group to oppose the villages, but the projects have garnered support from several other environmental organizations including Audubon of the Western Everglades, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife. Those groups see the villages as an acceptable compromise.
Collier Enterprises has agreed to take extra steps to reduce the impact of the villages on the environment, including providing thousands of bear-proof trash cans and expanding wildlife crossings under roadways.
The Conservancy has challenged Bellmar, which would sit closest to the panther refuge, on another front.
In a letter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the group urges denial of a required state permit.
If the project advances at the state level, the Conservancy has asked the DEP to hold a public meeting on it before any decision is made.