Planning commission rejects plan for 1,000-acre village in rural Collier
A proposed village on the eastern edge of Golden Gate Estates stumbled trying to clear a major hurdle last week.
After multiple all-day hearings, the Collier County Planning Commission on Thursday voted 4-1 recommending denial for Rivergrass Village, a roughly 1,000-acre development proposed north and south of Oil Well Road and east of Desoto Boulevard North, that would allow for up to 2,500 homes.
The project is the first of a handful of rural villages wending its way through reviews by county officials as developers look to build within 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.
Previous coverage:Collier planning board begins first review of proposed rural village
Collier Enterprises, the company behind the rural village, would set aside 5,259 acres for conservation in exchange for approvals to build Rivergrass.
Plans for the village also propose a minimum of 62,500 square feet and a maximum of 80,000 square feet of commercial space and a minimum of 25,000 square feet for civic, government and institutional buildings. The development would include an 18-hole golf course and would be gated.
But for some planning commissioners Thursday the proposal didn’t square with the objectives of the RLSA. The project, Planning Commissioner Karl Fry said, is more akin to the gated communities that already populate Collier’s urban area where “everybody is forced to travel only main roads in most cases to get where they want to go.”
“To me, this plan looks as if it’s a gated PUD, actually two gated PUDs that are very similar to what would be in the western part, outside of the RLSA,” he said, referring to the abbreviation for planned unit development. “They’ve simply been moved east and added to it a little bit of commercial as a requirement of the village.”
The proposed village isn’t pedestrian or bicycle-friendly either, Fry said. A separated bike path or walking trail, for instance, could have been added to the plan, he said.
“I don’t see why there couldn’t be some accommodation for that in the 1,000 acres, where there is a trail around the perimeter or through the center of it that is not competing with automotive traffic to get where you want to go,” Fry said.
The village would be split by Oil Well Road, which would essentially create two separate gated communities, said Mark Strain, the chairman of the planning commission.
“This does not give us anything more than the PUDs we have in the urban area,” he said. “I was expecting more out of that eastern area.”
But some on the planning commission argued the proposal made the best of a difficult location.
“Looking at what I see, I thought they did a pretty good job,” said Planning Commissioner Stan Chrzanowski, who voted in favor of the project. “And I’m not sure what else they could do. Yeah, it’d be nice to have a bike path and it’d be nice to have a pedestrian overpass so people could go from one side to the other. But I’m not sure that would accomplish that much.”
Collier Enterprises in an emailed statement said it looked forward to presenting before county commissioners, who will have final say on the project.
“The Collier County Planning Commission heard four days of expert testimony and analysis demonstrating that the Rivergrass proposal meets the county’s requirements for a new village,” said Patrick Utter, Collier Enterprises vice president of real estate. “That is the basis upon which the decision to recommend approval should have been founded.
“While we are disappointed that only one planning commissioner applied the county’s own standards in reviewing the Rivergrass application, we look forward to the opportunity to present this worthy project to the Collier County Board of Commissioners.”
Rivergrass is the successor of Rural Lands West, a 4,000-acre town once proposed by Collier Enterprises before the company withdrew its application for it earlier this year arguing that bureaucracy and "economic overreach” by the county had forced its hand.
Some environmentalists and some on the planning commission have lamented the loss of the proposed town, which would have set aside more land for conservation.
In plans for Rural Lands West, Fry said he saw interconnectivity, pathways and a large commercial section that would help prevent people in the eastern RLSA from traveling far to the west to get essential goods and services.
“I sure wish we were talking about a town here,” he said.
When Rural Lands West was withdrawn, the community lost out on the environmental benefits it would have provided, including preserving 12,000 acres and restoring farm fields that have since been sold, said Meredith Budd, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation.
Although fewer acres will be preserved with the proposed village, that would still be “worlds better” than if the land was developed using the underlying base zoning, which would lead to Golden Gate Estates-style sprawl, Budd said.
Of the roughly 5,000 acres that would be preserved under the village proposal, 2,700 acres of critical flowway in Camp Keais Strand would be restored, she said.
Budd said she hoped that the applicant would take the feedback from the planning commission and make the necessary changes.
“My hope is that they can address the issues the planning commission brought up,” she said.
Other environmental groups were happy to see the project be dealt a blow.
“The Conservancy applauds the planning commission’s decision to recommend denial of Rivergrass Village,” April Olson, senior environmental planning specialist for the group, said in an emailed statement.
“We agree with statements made by the commission that the design of the project is inconsistent with the principles, objectives and policies of the RLSA program.”
The Conservancy, Olson said, agreed with the planning commission’s assertion that the project was “no different” than any other gated planned unit development in Collier.
“Their decision to recommend denial sends a strong message to the development community that the RLSA program was not created for business-as-usual type development,” Olson wrote, adding that the Conservancy will be asking county commissioners to deny the project.