Collier commissioners delay decision on rural Rivergrass Village

Patrick Riley
Naples Daily News

Editor's note: This is one of several occasional looks back at people and issues that made headlines in Southwest Florida in 2019.

A year ago, an application for a long-planned proposed town in rural Collier County was abruptly scrapped. 

Instead, Collier Enterprises — the company once behind the 4,000-acre development known as Rural Lands West — has moved forward with three proposed 1,000-acre villages in interior Collier that could shape the county for decades to come and will set up high-stakes votes by elected officials.

Collier commissioners in December were slated to discuss the first of a handful of rural villages making their way through various stages of county reviews. 

Four of them would sit in the 185,000-acre Rural Lands Stewardship Area where a voluntary program — intended to reign in sprawl — 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.

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

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

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

But noting the gravity of the coming decisions, commissioners postponed until January their discussion of Rivergrass Village — which would sit north and south of Oil Well Road and east of Desoto Boulevard North, and allow for up to 2,500 homes.

“This will be the start of the most significant decisions we’re going to make for the future of this county,” said Commissioner Burt Saunders during the board’s Dec. 10 meeting. “We’re going to impact development for the next 50 years.”

Saunders continued, “And to be perfectly candid with you, I’m a little bit confused as to what we have to do based on prior actions by the board and what we should do in terms of policy going forward.”

He said he would like a presentation from county staff on Collier’s long-range transportation plan for that part of the county.

“Part of the reason that I want to continue this item is that the Big Cypress Parkway is critical to development,” Saunders said, referring to a major proposed north-south road that would be located immediately west of Rivergrass Village.

“And I’m not sure whether we should do the Big Cypress Parkway or not. I just don’t have enough information and I need to have that prior to being ready to start voting on land-use changes,” Saunders added.

The proposed villages have also been met with concern from some environmental groups who say the development will harm habitat for the endangered Florida panther.

Saunders said he wants to make sure “we’re doing the right things to protect the environment, and to maximize protecting farmlands and protecting critical environmental habitat.”

“So I need more time,” he said.

Commissioners decided to hold a workshop in January before continuing their discussion on Rivergrass Village later that month. Although not final yet, county staff said this week, the workshop will focus on the Rural Lands Stewardship Area and address transportation, environmental planning, and housing affordability.

Commissioner Andy Solis agreed that more work was left to be done in the face of “one of the most important decisions” the board is going to make.

“This is the future of growth in Collier County,” he said.

He also urged everyone, including county staff, to “sharpen their pencils.”

So far, Rivergrass Village has fought an uphill battle of sorts. 

The Collier County Planning Commission in November recommended denial of the proposal by a 4-1 vote. For some planning commissioners the proposal didn’t square with the objectives of the RLSA.

County staff and Collier Enterprises have also been at odds at times, especially related to discussions over land the county wants from the developer to build Big Cypress Parkway.

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

More:Proposed villages in rural Collier draw concerns from environmentalists

More:Collier reviews rural growth plan amid looming disagreements

The road would go from Immokalee Road south to Golden Gate Boulevard and would allow travelers from the RLSA to be able to get to east-west roadways that lead into the urban area, dispersing the traffic among those corridors, said Trinity Scott, the county’s transportation planning manager.

The county has determined that it will need Big Cypress Parkway by 2040, but it doesn't yet have the money to build it by then, she added.

Collier Enterprises has agreed to provide land for the road along Rivergrass Village, said Deputy County Manager Nick Casalanguida. But the company and county staff have not come to an agreement on land for Big Cypress Parkway north and south of the Rivergrass development.

“We want to lock it down and get the right of way committed,” Casalanguida said in an interview last week. “And we’re willing to pay for it. They want to give it piecemeal as part of approvals and that becomes clunky. Because you got a vision, a plan, and if they never come in with another phase or the economy changes and, you know, we want to include it, then we’re in kind of a predicament.”

Lawyers for Collier Enterprises in a Dec. 6 letter to county commissioners laid out the company’s proposed phased approach to resolve the disagreements over right of way. 

Concurrent with the approval of the Rivergrass application, the company would convey 45 acres for Big Cypress Parkway right-of-way from 45th Avenue Northeast to Randall Boulevard in exchange for transportation impact fee credits. It would also convey roughly 58 acres for Immokalee Road right of way and drainage. 

Additionally, the letter notes, 51 acres for Oil Well Road right of way and associated drainage has been previously conveyed to the county “at no cost.”

Concurrent with the approvals of two other proposed villages, the company would convey a strip of land 200 feet wide for Big Cypress Parkway right of way from Randall Boulevard south to Sixth Avenue Southeast. Collier Enterprises would also address the  drainage needed to accommodate the county’s proposed road widening. The developer has asked for transportation impact fee credits in exchange.

“This proposal represents a reasonable compromise to achieve the County’s right of way objectives (which exceed right-of-way required for the projects), and which can be formalized in a Landowner Agreement for each project, thereby allowing the parties to evaluate the necessary stormwater needs as each project is reviewed by the County,” the lawyers wrote.

More: Read the letter from Collier Enterprises to the county

More:From town to village: Collier Enterprises plans 1,000-acre development in eastern Collier

More:Collier planning board begins first review of proposed rural village

The letter states that the extent of right of way is not based on, “or rationally related to,” the impacts of the Rivergrass project. In fact, the lawyers argue, the proposed development does not result in “any impacts” requiring additional right of way for Big Cypress Parkway.

Patrick Utter, senior vice president of real estate for Collier Enterprises, said Rivergrass Village, which will have its roads more internalized than the previous larger town project, is not relying on Big Cypress Parkway.

"It's just a totally different project," he said.

To Utter, it’s also a question of fairness.

The county, he said, is asking Hyde Park — a nearby 655-acre village proposed by another developer — for only 20 acres of right-of-way. 

“And they want us to give up 500 acres,” he said.

Despite the disagreements over right of way, Utter said the company believes there is a way to work out the differences.

“We’re trying to work something out with the county,” he said.

Casalanguida agreed.

“We think if we just continue to talk to them we can come to something amicable that we can both agree to,” he said.

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