Corkscrew Road development hearing draws big crowd to Lee courtroom

Bill Smith
Fort Myers News-Press
A judge has continued an approval hearing for a big development in southeast Lee County to resolve claims that the county wrongfully rejected a rock mine proposed  years ago.

A plan to turn thousands of acres of land previously planned for rock mining and crop-growing into a huge residential development drew a lot more people than expected to a public hearing called to approve or reject the proposals approved by Lee County Commissioners. 

At issue was a proposal to settle millions of dollars in claims against the county arising from its rejection of limerock mines off outer Corkscrew Road. Lee commissioners have backed a plan to allow the property owner, or a successor, to build 10,000 new homes and 700,000 square feet of commercial property on more than 6,670 acres in rural southeast Lee to resolve the matter. 

The county and Corkscrew Grove Limited Partnership are asking the circuit court to rule there are no legal impediments to the settlement to avoid a $63 million payment over the county's past refusal to allow limerock mining and other uses on the site.

Related coverage:Lee Commission choice: Pay $63M to settle suit or OK huge Corkscrew development

From last year: Another unbuilt limerock mine, led to 5,200 new homes in Corkscrew corridor

Public interest in the prospect of more development in the environmentally protected Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource area as well as development's implications for rural Lee County drew more people than the tiny courtroom used for Wednesday's hearing could handle. 

The normal day-to-day use of the courtroom used Wednesday is for judges to conduct motion hearings on legal and other issues or to wring settlements out of lawyers representing a client intent on consuming the time of witnesses, jurors and the judiciary to accomplish a predictable result.

Judge James Shenko called a recess at mid-morning when informed another courtroom had become available and the last hour of debate was in front of anyone who wanted to drop in on the hearing on the Kingston Project.

The matter was continued to a hearing on Nov. 8, which also is Election Day. 

Fort Myers resident James Brann voices his disapproval during the Lee County Commission's 2019  hearing on proposed changes to limerock mining rules.

A settlement, endorsed by county commissioners last spring, was up for approval by a judge. It would buy-out the claims of the property owner that the county's rejection of mining on the property more than a decade-and-a-half ago has led to diminished value.

If approved, current landowner Corkscrew Grove Limited Partnership could be expected to sell its property to builder Joseph Cameratta's companies. He has developed communities along Corkscrew Road designed to minimize the impact on the environment.

Lee County commissioners back the development plan and approved a settlement agreement allowing for construction of homes, commercial property and a "spine road" to make travel in the rural area easier. 

Environmental news:Lee County  mine decisions endangered Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, experts say

Read more:King Ranch now owns Lee mining site

From left, Michael Jacob, Richard Wesch, Lee County Attorney at hearing in 2019 in proposed changes to limerock mining rules.

The settlement is based on the state's controversial Bert Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act, which can be used used to pay off  landowners who claim diminished property values caused by the way the government acts or fails to act on an issue. 

Settling the case is an attractive idea for elected public officials compared to being hit with a lawsuit and money damages claiming the government has stumbled its way to being liable for lost value in land.

Putting a value on that diminished land in Lee came up at Wednesday's hearing in questioning of development consultant Dan DeLisi. Under questioning from attorneys for the landowner, DeLisi explained what makes Old Corkscrew Plantation limerock worth driving a multimillion-dollar settlement of potential claims against the county.

DeLisi testified he was hired in 2006 by a group considering mining the site, at the time located beyond the virtual end of civilization in Lee County.

"What we noticed is an incredibly rich source of limerock on the property, very abundant, very close to the surface, throughout the entire site," DeLisi said. "And the unique thing about this is that it was very deep and very hard."

Getting evidence of the lost value of the land due to the inability to use it to mine limerock is one part of the issue before Shenko.

He is expected to also hear the argument that developing the land will diminish the quality of life to people who live near the site.

Kevin Hill, who lives in the southeast part of the county, has seen the encroachment of mining on the lives of his wife and family in outer Corkscrew. His lawyer convinced the judge to allow Hill to intervene in the case to so his view on the impact of the proposed settlement on residents can be heard.

Hill has repeatedly testified before the county hearing examiners in cases involving strip-mining for limerock or development  in traditionally rural areas in the eastern county. He has not yet testified in the Old Corkscrew case.