Collier Enterprises joins county's side in Conservancy's Rivergrass Village lawsuit
Collier County, facing a lawsuit brought by an environmental advocacy group who seeks to overturn the approval of a controversial rural village, has a new supporter in the legal fight.
Collier Enterprises — the company that plans to build Rivergrass Village, a proposed 1,000-acre village along Oil Well Road east of Golden Gate Estates — has joined the county's side in a lawsuit brought by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida against Collier County.
Collier Enterprises filed its motion to intervene in the lawsuit last week, announcing the move in a two-page news release that touted the company's preservation efforts, including the close to 5,250 acres of land it will set aside for preservation as it builds the village, removing some land-use rights.
“The Colliers are committed to preserving the environment and balancing good growth to meet the needs of Collier County residents,” Sonja Eddings Brown, director of government relations for Collier Enterprises, said in the news release.
The company argued the Conservancy is not only "attacking" Collier Enterprises' proposed village but also the Rural Lands Stewardship Area, which it called "one of the greatest planning achievements in the community in decades."
The proposed village would sit in the 185,000-acre RLSA, where a voluntary program allows developers, in exchange for preserving more environmentally sensitive land, to build towns and villages in areas with lower conservation value.
"By intervening in the Conservancy lawsuit, Collier Enterprises will join forces with Collier County to mount a strong defense to protect Collier County’s 21st century vision of naturally balanced growth in the RSLA," the release states.
The county has not yet filed an answer to the Conservancy's complaint and County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow declined to comment Tuesday, saying "it's pending litigation."
In its news release, Collier Enterprises also argues that the proposed village "answers a pressing need for moderately priced housing in Collier County."
Home prices are expected to start at around $250,000, according to a company spokeswoman.
The Conservancy's lawsuit, filed in Collier County Circuit Court in early March, contends that the proposed village is inconsistent with the county's growth management plan.
The group said in an emailed statement Tuesday that it remains "confident" in its lawsuit against the county.
It also reiterated that Rivergrass is neither interconnected nor walkable, "will result in a drain on taxpayer dollars," will destroy endangered species habitat, and "fails to incorporate innovative planning strategies."
"The Conservancy remains fully committed to pursuing its claims and allowing the legal process to continue, regardless of involvement from new parties,” the Conservancy said in its statement.
Rivergrass, the first rural village to come before county commissioners for approval, split environmental groups and has stirred controversy in Collier for months.
County commissioners narrowly approved the project by a 3-2 vote in late January. Planning commissioners previously recommended that the proposal be rejected.
The Conservancy has been opposed to the proposed village from the start, arguing that it doesn’t meet the goals and the policies of the RLSA program and that it would destroy hundreds of acres of primary panther habitat.
Other environmentalists, however, have said the proposal put forth — and the land preservation tied to it — is better than the prospect of having more Golden Gate Estates-style sprawl.
They also argue that not all panther habitat is created equal.
Meredith Budd, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said the footprint of the village "is made up entirely of cleared farm fields."
"So, even though they are labeled by a model as what is called 'primary panther habitat,' cleared farm fields do not provide the same functionality to panthers as a forested landscape," she wrote in a text message to a reporter.