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Collier reviews rural growth plan amid looming disagreements

Collier County is running out of room. And with much of the remaining land clustered in Collier’s rural interior, the county is trying to strike a balance between growth and conservation.

Large swaths of undeveloped land around Immokalee — where farmlands, fields and panther habitat intersect — are part of the Rural Lands Stewardship Area, created nearly two decades ago to reign in creeping sprawl. 

The voluntary program is now undergoing a review by county officials who are looking to improve it. Following a dozen workshops, county staff released a white paper in May, detailing a long list of recommendations, ranging from providing credits to preserve agricultural lands to requiring a minimum number of units per acre in new towns and villages.

For the county, the stakes are high. 

“As remarked by board members, only 10% of county land remains available for new development,” county staff wrote in its RLSA white paper. “This is the last chance to ‘get it right’ in terms of development form.”

More:Rural Lands town idea scaled back from 4,000 acres to Collier village of 1,000 acres or less

Disagreements over the plan loom. A group of landowners with large holdings in the RLSA has hinted that some recommendations could end their voluntary participation in the program. And to some environmental groups the proposed changes don’t go far enough.

Spanning 185,000 acres, the RLSA program allows landowners to build towns and villages with shopping centers, schools and businesses in areas with low conservation value using credits earned by giving up their rights to develop more environmentally sensitive land.

Dig deeper:  Read the RLSA white paper

The credit system — which allows building in Stewardship Receiving Areas (SRA) and preserves land in Stewardship Sending Areas (SSA) — is designed to encourage conservation of the most important environmental lands — including large, connected wetland systems and habitat for listed species — by awarding higher credit values for those.

County staff’s more than 50 recommendations cover a range of topics, including water resources; agricultural protection as well as environmental protection; towns, villages and other development; and the credit system.

Conservancy: Recommendations fall short

For the Conservancy of Southwest Florida several of the county's recommendations make the program better, but the group says a few major concerns remain.

“There definitely are some improvements,” said April Olson, senior environmental planning specialist for the Conservancy. “But we do feel that the recommendations fall short of fixing the fundamental issues of the program.”

For one, Olson said, the available acreage for development in the RLSA, referred to as the “Open” areas, is “far too vast.” To the Conservancy, the development footprint of the RLSA needs to be “drastically reduced” to avoid sprawl and allow for compact communities that save natural resources and taxpayer dollars.

"It needs to be a lot more condensed...," Olson said. "There’s too many credits, which means that the development footprint is too big. So really the system needs to be recalibrated.”

More:Collier Enterprises withdraws application for long-planned 4,000-acre town

For instance, Olson said, instead of the current eight credits per acre needed for building, that number could be adjusted to 50 credits per acre, which would shrink the development footprint. In its white paper, county staff suggest that both credits and acreages are capped to allow for no more than 45,000 acres of development.

Another major concern for the Conservancy, Olson said, is that the program still allows the county to approve development within primary panther habitat.

Although landowners still need to get federal approval to impact panther habitat, it does not "abdicate" the county's program "from meeting its responsibility of protecting listed species," she said

Lastly, the Conservancy is concerned, Olson said, that the county is not in possession of the "foundational data and methodology" for the RLSA program. That data shows which areas are more appropriate for development and which areas should be set aside for preservation and agriculture, she said. Without the data and the methodology there is no way to update the program "with best available science," Olson added.

County staff wrote in its white paper that the data was not part of what state growth regulators reviewed to approve the RLSA program and is not needed today by the county "for any discernible purpose."

More:Mega-permit for rural Collier development draws opposition, support

Olson emphasized there are "several good recommendations" in the white paper, including requiring minimum densities within a quarter mile of town or village centers, which would help make the communities more walkable.

County staff recommends those areas should have more than six units per acre, excluding acreage for civic uses.

Credit changes proposed

The county's current review isn't the first time Collier officials have looked to improve the program.

Five years after the plan's adoption, a review committee of business, civic and environmental leaders set out to assess the program. But the committee's suggestions were never implemented, in large part because the recession in the late 2000s led to arguments over who should pay for the review of the necessary growth plan amendments.

Brad Cornell, a policy associate for Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida, sat on the committee for two years. The white paper, he said, incorporates the bulk of recommendations made a decade ago, with some updates.

"Those recommendations have sat on the shelf for 10 years," Cornell said, referring to those from the five-year review committee. "So I frankly am frustrated that the county has still not moved forward and has gone back to the same well, so to speak, to ask for another round of public input."

But despite the delay, Cornell said it's always good for the public and county leaders to refresh their minds about the RLSA. Among the most important recommendations in the white paper is a proposal to offer credits in exchange for preserving agricultural land, he said.

The area's current base zoning allows for one home every 5 acres, which could lead to sprawling Golden Gate Estates-style development environmental groups are trying to avoid. 

"So we had to figure out a way to disincentivize that and incentivize keeping the farms. ...,” Cornell said. “That’s probably the most important policy change recommendation.”

Previously:Collier Enterprises hosts neighborhood meeting on Rural Lands West

Along with that change, the county needs to recalibrate the credit system to make sure it takes more credits to develop land, Cornell said. The county also should cap total development at 45,000 acres, he said.

Restoration credits, Cornell said, need to be revamped to foster the restoration of panther corridors and shallow seasonal wetlands for wading birds. County staff wrote in the white paper that that approach should be further vetted with environmental permitting agencies and land management experts.

County staff did, however, recommend tweaking the timing of certain types of restoration credits. The hope is to speed up the work, said Meredith Budd, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

Landowners would receive half the credit upon designating land for restoration and would get the other half upon successfully completing the restoration.

Additionally, a reduction of credits for designating land for restoration is "imperative" to make sure there aren't too many credits in the system, Budd said.

Landowners: Some proposals conflicting

The majority of the RLSA’s 185,000 acres are privately held, with nearly 179,000 acres in private ownership. Most of the private land is owned by a group of 11 entities, called the Eastern Collier Property Owners, which includes Alico, Inc.; Barron Collier Investment, Ltd.; and Collier Enterprises Management, Inc., among others.

In a statement to the Daily News, the group commended county staff for its efforts throughout the restudy and touted the 50,000 acres of preservation land “worth a half-billion dollars” already set aside “at no cost to taxpayers” through the RLSA program. The white paper includes many of the program improvements identified during the five-year review process, which the group continues to support, according to the statement.

Among the recommendations ECPO supports are the creation of new incentives to permanently retain land for agriculture, the restoration of flowway and habitat stewardship areas through a “balanced incentive policy,” and a 45,000-acre limit on the maximum development footprint.

More:  Read the full ECPO statement

However, the group also noted — without going into specifics — that some recommendations “are in conflict with the existing program, which has served for 17 years as a framework for property owners who have invested tens of millions of dollars in restoration and preservation while voluntarily relinquishing private property rights.”

“ECPO members will continue to advocate for reasonable improvements to the RLSA framework while identifying recommendations that are inconsistent with the adopted program and would jeopardize the voluntary participation of our members, who represent 90 percent of the private land in the RLSA,” the group said in the statement.

Two proposed RLSA villages — Hyde Park at 655 acres and Rivergrass at 1,000 acres — are nearing completion of county staff review. The projects are expected to come before the county's Planning Commission and county commissioners later this year or in 2020.

Commissioners to take up white paper in fall

Commissioner Bill McDaniel, whose district encompasses the RLSA, said he is not in favor of some of the recommendations listed in the white paper, including requiring minimum densities in or near town or village centers.

“Big picture, there were too many dictatorial wants put on the landowners,” McDaniel said.

The program is voluntary, which means landowners should be incentivized to participate, he said.

“If we put too many onerous restrictions then nothing happens,” McDaniel said.

He said he would like to review the RLSA program more frequently, perhaps every three years, and has asked staff to segregate recommendations that were met with a consensus from landowners and environmental groups from those that weren't.

County staff anticipate having individual meetings with stakeholders and plan to present the white paper to county commissioners at an Oct. 8 public hearing.

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