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One man's quest to build a single-family home on Plantation Island could change the face of the tiny community hit hard by Hurricane Irma last year.

Grady Johnson Jr. wants to build a home out of concrete, but the residential zoning on the island near Everglades City in south Collier County allows for only mobile and modular homes and RVs. 

However, he's found support from Collier County commissioners to begin the regulatory process needed to change the rules, which would not only let him to do what he wants, but would also open the door for others to build traditional homes on the island.

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Last month county commissioners unanimously agreed to pursue a zoning overlay for the island at the county's expense that would allow property owners to build single-family homes as an alternative.  

County Commissioner William McDaniel Jr. said the overlay would have the effect of "enhancing the property rights of the people that are there." The change would apply to more than 200 property owners.

The regulatory review and approval process for the overlay could take six to nine months, but the wait is worth it for Johnson, who wants a stronger home that can stand up better to powerful storms such as Hurricane Irma that hit in September.

"It's going to be better construction and less destruction and less cost in the future for us," he told county commissioners.

Plantation Island is a low-lying unincorporated area southeast of Everglades City and north of Chokoloskee. Census data from 2010 showed a population of 163, but it has grown since then.

Many residents are still picking up the pieces from Irma. The island was one of the hardest-hit areas in the state. Many trailers were destroyed by winds and flooding and have yet to be replaced.

"Some of these folks that I've known — they're not coming back. They lost everything," Johnson said.

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Irma ripped apart the trailer that once sat on the land Johnson wants to build on, and what remained has been demolished. The former owners used it as a rental property. 

Johnson's mobile home, a few doors down, took a beating too, but it survived the storm. He doesn't want to take another chance on it.

Having lived on the island full time since 2009, he's looking for a safer alternative for his family. 

"I personally want concrete block and metal roofs just like we got in our schools. We build our schools for our children. They're our No. 1 resources, and they're also our hurricane shelters, so I want my home to meet the same standards as one of our schools and one of our hurricane shelters," he told county commissioners.  

In December, Johnson purchased two vacant lots on West Flamingo Drive for $50,000, knowing the land came with building restrictions. A few months later he filed a public petition asking for the county commission's help to change the rules so he could build a conventional home on the property.

He first appeared before county commissioners in May, asking for a zoning change for the island for the betterment of the community and the county.

For Johnson, building a traditional home could also wind up being cheaper.

Heightened demand and a low supply have led to more aggressive pricing for manufactured homes, and installation costs can be steep, along with the expense of raising them up on pilings to meet the Federal Emergency Management Agency's newest standards, Johnson said.

With manufactured homes in short supply, there can also be a long wait for them.

Initially, county staff recommended Johnson file an individual petition to rezone his two lots, a process he estimates would have cost him at least $40,000. That didn't sit well with him, as it would have been expensive, and any zoning changes that would have come from it wouldn't have helped his neighbors.

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"It was important. It was an issue for the whole island," he said.

Zoning overlays are not all that uncommon and exist in other parts of the county, including Goodland and Everglades City. A new one is in the works for Golden Gate.

Before the vote on whether to proceed with the overlay, Collier County Commissioner Penny Taylor asked county staff if the approval process could be sped up, recognizing that residents are eager to rebuild in the aftermath of Irma.

County Manager Leo Ochs said staff would move it along as quickly as possible without "jeopardizing the public hearing process."

"No, I don't want that jeopardized," Taylor said. 

Plantation Island sits within the Big Cypress Area of Critical State Concern, a designation that's meant to conserve and protect the area's natural resources and scenic beauty. That means the state would have to sign off on any zoning changes on the island.

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Johnson told commissioners he's already received a thumbs-up from Barbara Powell, with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, who manages the Area of Critical State Concern Program. He said she "supports this 100 percent." 

Powell could not be reached for comment.

In an email, Karen Smith, press secretary for the Department of Economic Opportunity, said: "The Collier County commission would have to approve a zoning change to be submitted to DEO for review. Since this is an area of critical state concern, DEO would review the proposed zoning change."

Mike Bosi, director of the county's zoning division, said he'll be proactive, reaching out to Powell to confirm the state is on board with the proposed changes early on in the process, which will involve several public hearings.

The application for the overlay must still be developed. County staff will do that after getting more input from other property owners on the island, Bosi said.

A neighborhood information meeting will be part of the process.

The application would go before the county's Planning Commission, which would make a recommendation to the board of county commissioners on whether to ultimately approve it.

In the meantime, Johnson said some island residents are feeling apprehensive about whether the overlay will get approved. But he's hopeful based on the support he's heard from county commissioners.

"Now we are in the wait-and-see mode — to see what happens," he said. 

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