Developers drop out of conservation plan to protect panther habitat in Collier County

Chad Gillis Laura Layden
Fort Myers News-Press

A consortium of landowners in eastern Collier County has scrapped a plan to set aside huge swaths of their land for the endangered Florida panther. 

Several environmental groups in Southwest Florida are fuming over the decision, while others are glad to see the plan dropped, in hopes of a better outcome for wildlife.

The Habitat Conservation Plan, known as HCP, would have clustered development on 45,000 acres around Immokalee, while preserving 107,000 acres of prime panther habitat.

In a statement, the Eastern Collier Property Owners, also known as ECPO, said they withdrew the HCP from the federal review process, overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after facing repeated delays. They blamed the delays, at least in part, on "questions about future issues," outside the plan's boundaries.

More environment news:

The owners said it had become "increasingly apparent" that a permit based on the plan was "not forthcoming," and the process had reached the point of holding up their developments.

While it has been pulled, the property owners said they "remain committed to the principles of the Habitat Conservation Plan" and "look forward to the opportunity to continue to work with conservation partners to implement the tenets of the plan case-by-case on individual projects."

Despite the owners' promises, Meredith Budd, a regional policy director for the Florida Wildlife Federation, said she'd rather have a broader conservation plan in hand.

"I think people are moving here and property rights are at stake," she said. "I'd rather have the assurance and not watch it chopped up piece by piece like we did the Corkscrew (Road) corridor. I think it will sever necessary corridors that we need to rebound the species." 

The Habitat Conservation Plan included three remote villages

The 45,000 acres of development in the Habitat Conservation Plan included three remote villages proposed by Collier Enterprises, which are still proceeding.

In a company statement, Collier Enterprises said it had already "sought project-specific reviews" for the trio of projects.

Without the broader conservation plan, Budd questions whether the villages could wind up with fewer protections for wildlife.

"You have to see if it's going to jeopardize the panther, to threaten the future existence of the species," Budd said. 

She heard about the consortium's decision to drop the conservation plan from one of the landowners before speaking to a reporter.

In their shared statement, the property owners said they might consider reopening their application in the future, "if doing so will be beneficial to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, applicants and conservation partners."

The approval of an HCP is required to receive a permit for what's known as an "incidental take." The process is designed to ensure that the effects of the permitted action on endangered species are adequately minimized and mitigated. 

Environmentally sensitive lands in the rural stretches of Collier County have been coveted by developers for decades.

A Florida panther tripped a motion sensor camera set up by News-Press photographer Andrew West in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed in early May of 2022. There are between 120-230 adult panthers roaming the wild according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

More on the Rural Land Stewardship Area

The 45,000 acres eyed for development sit in what's known as the Rural Land Stewardship Area. 

The stewardship area, adopted 20 years ago, encompasses 185,000 acres around Immokalee, east of Golden Gate Estates, with the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge to the south and the Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest to the north.

The RLSA program allows developers to build more intense towns and villages on property with lower conservation value to preserve more environmentally sensitive land through a credit system. It's designed to prevent urban sprawl, addressing state concerns about the protection of wildlife and wetlands dating back to the 1990s.

Amber Crooks, with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida's environmental policy department, said she considers the withdrawal of the application for an incidental take permit a win for the environment. 

Panthers are an umbrella species and an indicator of the overall health of the historic Everglades system. 

"The 'why' looks like it's because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted their biological opinion on the HCP and it appears that they found the HCP proposal would jeopardize the future of the Florida panther," Crooks said. "It has to do with the amount of panther road kill that would result from the 45,000 acres of development and all the traffic related to that development."

The property owners didn't corroborate those statements.

"We know that there's going to be about 183,000 additional cars on the road and each day another 800,000 daily trips in what is currently a very rural and natural area," Crooks said. "There would be a projected need for about 200 miles of brand new or upgrades to existing roads."

The three villages planned by Collier Enterprises would drive much of that growth.

Last year, a Collier circuit judge sided against the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in its challenge of one of those villages, known as Rivergrass.

The Conservancy based its case primarily on the rules governing the stewardship area, which are found in the county's Growth Management Plan. In a nutshell, the group contends Rivergrass represents the antithesis of what should be built on rural lands.

The Conservancy has appealed the circuit judge's unfavorable ruling. It awaits a decision on that case in the 2nd District Court of Appeal after making its arguments before a panel of judges at a hearing last week.

Brad Cornell, a policy associate with Audubon Florida, said his group supported the Habitat Conservation Plan and hoped it would eventually get federal approval. So, he's disappointed.

"We've been working with these landowners for 20 years on ways to protect listed species, especially panthers and wood storks," he said. "It wasn't perfect but we thought it was a winning strategy." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.