This proposed housing community near Golden Gate Estates includes environment restoration, but others disagree

Patrick Riley
Naples Daily News

In rural Collier County, past tomato and melon fields, where paved roads give way to bumpy trails only accessible by four-wheel drive, Christian Spilker wishes the naysayers could see what he sees.

It is January. Dry season. But Spilker, the vice president of land management for Collier Enterprises, points to the standing water on both sides of the narrow, elevated path his sport utility vehicle has just crawled along. One side is lower than the other.

The latest:Collier Commission votes 3-2 to approve Rivergrass Village east of Golden Gate Estates

Once a road to Immokalee, the roughly 3-feet high trail cuts across Camp Keais Strand, a large natural slough in central Collier that conveys sheet flow through wetlands south from Lake Trafford to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. For decades, the historic flow pattern of the strand has been affected by roads and agricultural developments.

Brad Cornell, a policy associate for Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida, left, and Christian Spilker, vice president of land management for Collier Enterprises, right, discuss the proposed Stewardship Sending Areas, which would be preserved and maintained in perpetuity, that would be associated with the development of Rivergrass Village near Oil Well Road on Monday, January 20, 2020.

When the rains begin, the water will eventually flow across the road, which essentially acts as a dam. But the issue, Spilker said, is the lag.

“Volume’s one thing,” he said. “But timing is important for things like the panther refuge, for fire protection.”

Spilker said Collier Enterprises is proposing to remove more than a mile of the roadway to help restore the natural flow again.

The project would be tied to the company’s plan to build a controversial 1,000-acre community along Oil Well Road, east of Golden Gate Estates. In order to develop up to 2,500 homes, the landowner has to set aside land for preservation.

Spilker sees the proposal, known as Rivergrass Village, as an opportunity to restore the environment. Some environmental groups and their supporters see the project as destroying it. County commissioners are expected to weigh in Tuesday.

It could be the first time ever the commission will vote on a rural village proposal. Only one current commissioner was on the board when the rural town of Ave Maria was approved in the mid-2000s. 

Commissioners have given voice to the gravity of their upcoming decision numerous times. Two, commissioners Burt Saunders and Bill McDaniel, are hoping to be reelected later this year.

Rivergrass Village would sit in the 185,000-acre Rural Lands Stewardship Area. A voluntary program there allows landowners to build towns and villages in areas with low conservation value using credits earned by giving up their rights to develop more environmentally sensitive land. 

'Attempt to get it back to a more natural state'

But to Spilker, with all the public criticism the proposed village has received, the environmental preservation and restoration that would come along with the project haven’t gotten enough attention.

“No one would ever come along to do this project — it’s cost prohibitive and it’s on private land — you know, without this public-private partnership,” Spilker said, standing on the narrow road last week.

Restoring the flow south would not only shorten the time areas like the panther refuge are susceptible to wildfires, but it would also help wading birds, he said. Beyond that, the road removal could have far-reaching benefits, environmentalists say.

Altering the hydrology with a road like that changes the type of vegetation that thrives there, too, and impacts the entire ecosystem, said Meredith Budd, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

“So it’s not just, you know, one thing that’s getting changed, it has this cascading effect where, you know, multiple levels of the ecosystem just start to be affected by it,” she said.

An agricultural access road south of Lake Trafford, pictured at center, blocks water flowing from north to south, causing the area south of the road, pictured at right, to be much dryer than its northern counterpart, pictured at left. Under the Rivergrass Village proposal, the road would become part of a Stewardship Sending Area, which would be preserved and maintained in perpetuity, and it would be razed to restore water flow to Camp Keais Strand.

Because Rivergrass would be in the RLSA, along with building the rural village the company would set aside roughly 5,250 acres of land for preservation, removing some land-use rights.

That means homes could no longer be built there but certain agricultural uses would still be allowed, mostly cattle grazing.

Of the 5,250 acres about 2,560 would include flowway restoration. Collier Enterprises would also restore about 100 acres of existing agricultural land to native habitat and restore 8 acres of habitat through exotics removal.

In addition to the road removal project south of Lake Trafford, the company would also remove more than a quarter-mile of agricultural access road farther south as part of the hydrological restoration. 

There, in an area known as the “pinch point” because of how farm fields have created a more narrow path for the natural flow way, the restoration project would expand the “pinch point” from 100 feet in width to a quarter-mile, Spilker said. Collier Enterprises would restore the adjacent farm field to provide wading bird habitat and expand the flow through the point.

Christian Spilker, vice president of land management for Collier Enterprises, walks along an agricultural access road near Oil Well Road on Monday, January 20, 2020.

“This is an attempt to get it back to a more natural state,” Spilker said.

But while proponents have pointed to the environmental benefits tied to Rivergrass and highlighted how it would be largely built on existing farm fields, opponents have seized on concerns about increased traffic, the design and location of the village, the costs the county could face to service the community and potential impacts to so-called primary panther habitat.

The proposal, which some say could set the tone for future village projects slated to come before commissioners, has split environmental groups and unleashed a flurry of emails to commissioners from residents opposing the development, with many worried about more traffic. 

It has also garnered letters of support to commissioners from the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce and the Collier Building Industry Association.

Conservancy: 'A pivotal decision'

But almost from the start, the project faced criticism.

Rivergrass Village is proposed for land once part of Rural Lands West, a 4,000-acre proposal Collier Enterprises withdrew early last year citing county regulatory overreach. Instead, the company has proposed three smaller villages with Rivergrass being the first one to reach county commissioners for approval.

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

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has long opposed the project, arguing that it doesn’t meet the goals and the policies of the RLSA program.

The goal is to direct development or “incompatible uses” away from habitat of threatened or endangered species, but with Rivergrass more than 700 acres of primary panther habitat would be destroyed, said April Olson, senior environmental planning specialist for the Conservancy. 

The villages are also supposed to be walkable and bikeable, with an interconnected street network and a range of housing options, she said. But Rivergrass wouldn’t meet those goals, Olson said, because the community would be split by Oil Well Road, include more than 15 cul-de-sacs and have 90% single-family homes, “which is a prime characteristic of sprawl.”

“The project is supposed to be innovative and all it is is a regular golf course, gated (planned unit development),” Olson said. “There is nothing innovative about the … project.”

With other villages being proposed in the RLSA, Olson said the Conservancy is worried that approval of Rivergrass could set the tone for the rest.

“We see the decision for Rivergrass as a pivotal decision for the RLSA,” she said.

Although the Conservancy wants to see preservation of flow ways, Olson said none of the land that would be preserved by Rivergrass would be used only for conservation.

“They’re all staying in agriculture,” she said.

2019 coverage:Collier commissioners delay decision on rural Rivergrass Village

And:Planning commission rejects plan for 1,000-acre village in rural Collier

Project splits conservation groups

Rivergrass has proven divisive for environmental groups. And Spilker, of Collier Enterprises, is not the only one lamenting a lack of attention paid toward Rivergrass’ preservation elements.

To Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate for Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida, that part is being missed in some of the public dialogue. The village, he said, would be built on farm fields right next to Golden Gate Estates around a “major road.”

“Those are the criteria for appropriate development locations and what we’re getting is really ecologically significant and landscape-level conservation benefits,” Cornell said.

A barbed wire fence lines an agricultural access road south of Lake Trafford that is about a mile and a half long on Monday, January 20, 2020. Under the Rivergrass Village proposal, the road would become part of a Stewardship Sending Area, which would be preserved and maintained in perpetuity, and it would be razed to restore water flow to Camp Keais Strand.

For Budd, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, and Cornell, the RLSA allows for a landscape-scale network of conservation lands, flow ways and habitat for wildlife. Both Audubon and the Federation were part of a legal fight against the county decades ago that eventually spawned the rural growth plan.

The voluntary program, they argue, is a compromise. Landowners pay money to preserve lands and carry out restoration and, in exchange, are able to build villages and towns. 

“We challenge everybody to find a better way to do this than what we’re working on right now,” Cornell said. “We think this model works. It has been working for almost 20 years.”

The two groups also worry about the prospect of having Golden Gate Estates-style sprawl take hold in the RLSA. Under the current underlying zoning, developers could build one home per five acres. That, Spilker said, would mean putting in septic systems and drilling wells.

“If we want to solve water quality problems, you do it by something like Rivergrass,” he argued. “The county is going to serve our utilities.”

But to Olson the idea that the RLSA would be built out with ranchette-type development is a “red herring.”

“It’s not marketable,” she said. “ ... Very few people would want to build 5-acre ranchettes out in an area where there is very little infrastructure, especially when Golden Gate Estates is far from being built out.”

Further illustrating how at odds conservation groups are over Rivergrass, environmentalists have different outlooks on the significance of the primary panther habitat that the village would be built on. 

To the Conservancy, the primary zone comprises “essential” lands for the survival of the endangered Florida panther. Budd and others argue, however, that not all primary habitat is created equal.

Portions of Rivergrass' footprint are designated as primary habitat but are cleared farm fields, she said.

"So if you can take the cleared farm fields that are designated as primary panther habitat and compare them to perhaps a vegetated upland that’s also designated as primary panther habitat, I’d be hard pressed to say that the cleared farm field has the same value as that vegetated upland habitat directly adjacent to it,” Budd said. 

Connect with the reporter at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.

Previous coverage:Collier reviews rural growth plan amid looming disagreements

And:Commissioners approve growth plan changes for eastern Collier County