Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Groups divided over permit in Florida panther country

Ave Maria gets go-ahead from Army Corps of Engineers
Wetlands permit paves way for town, university to eventually cover about 5,000 acres of fields, pastures south of Immokalee

By Eric Staats
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ave Maria University and its neighboring town have cleared their last big hurdle with federal environmental permitting agencies.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wetlands permit gives the go-ahead for the university and town to eventually cover some 5,000 acres of farm fields and pastures south of Immokalee.

The Army Corps issued a permit in 2005 for a first phase that is already under construction northwest of the intersection of Oil Well and Camp Keais roads. People could start moving into the town in mid-2007. The campus is set to open in fall 2007.

Barron Collier Cos. and Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan are partners in developing Ave Maria, which is generating international buzz about Monaghan's conservative religious beliefs. Ave Maria is the first Roman Catholic university to be built in the United States in more than 40 years.

The federal permit review was strictly earthbound and weighed concerns about wetlands destruction, water quality and habitat for the endangered Florida panther and Audubon's crested caracara, a threatened falcon-like bird.

Barron Collier Cos. vice president for real estate Blake Gable said the company is doing right by the environment, preserving or restoring some 17,000 acres in return for Ave Maria approvals.

"It's been a long process, and this is another step along the way," Gable said Monday. "We feel very confident in what we've done."

Environmental groups were divided over the Ave Maria permit, which the Army Corps issued Aug. 14.

In letters to the Army Corps, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Audubon of Florida and the Collier County Audubon Society lauded Ave Maria's plans to preserve or restore panther and caracara habitat under the county's Rural Lands Stewardship Area growth plan.

Barron Collier Cos. CEO Paul Marinelli serves as a member of Audubon of Florida's board of directors.

"This project is a godsend for wildlife," said Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton.

Payton cited wildlife crossings proposed to be built under Oil Well Road and Immokalee Road east of Immokalee, the preservation of land in the Camp Keais Strand that conservationists have targeted for saving for decades and a buffer along 11 miles of the northern boundary of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida didn't send a letter backing the permit, but Conservancy President Andrew MacElwaine said the group doesn't oppose Ave Maria.

In another letter, though, Defenders of Wildlife said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's review contained "egregious flaws" and that the Army Corps permit does not require sufficient mitigation.

Defenders also contends that the county's growth plan does not replace the Army Corps' duty to protect endangered and threatened species.

". . . (The county's growth plan) provides cover for unprecedented development that will have far-reaching and long-term impacts for the panther and other imperiled species, impacts that are not adequately offset by the proposed mitigation," the group wrote.

"FWS and the corps cannot permit this type of destructive development to move forward," the letter says.

Laurie Macdonald, Florida director for Defenders of Wildlife, said the group spoke with Ave Maria planners about overall concerns about habitat and roads in the region but had not met about specific recommendations.

She said she has not reviewed the permit but that if mitigation requirements are not adequate, the group will make suggestions to the developer about improvements or still could challenge the permit.

"We hope it won't come to that (a lawsuit over the permit)," Macdonald said.

The permit for Ave Maria, which meets state criteria as a Development of Regional Impact, envisions a mid-sized university with 6,000 students and hotels, offices, shops, schools, medical facilities, parks, playing fields, stadiums, a 27-hole golf course and an 18-hole championship golf course.

The Army Corps permit authorizes the destruction of 23 acres of the site's 114 acres of wetlands. In return, Ave Maria is creating a 103-acre wetlands and uplands preserve, according to the permit.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service required preservation of 6,114 acres of Florida panther habitat and 600 acres of habitat for the caracara.

The biggest conservation bang came courtesy of the county's Rural Lands Stewardship Area growth plan, which commissioners adopted in 2002 after a years-long study paid for, in part, by Barron Collier Cos.

Under the growth plan, Barron Collier Cos. earned development credits to build Ave Maria by giving up most development rights on more than 17,000 acres, called Stewardship Sending Areas, or SSAs, in six spots around Immokalee.

The number of credits is based on the amount of development given up and the environmental quality of the land. The company got extra credits for restoration work.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Darrell Land said he was not qualified to speak specifically about whether Ave Maria is doing enough mitigation.

"The areas that have been set aside are good quality panther habitat, that's for sure," he said Monday.

Its preservation comes at a cost, though — one that is making it look increasingly likely that the best that can be hoped for the Florida panther is that it stay at its current population of 80 to 100 cats in South Florida. To increase the population requires more land for the wide-ranging animal — not less.

"Every development that comes in is taking away some of those options," Land said. "You do that and it reduces our future ability to recover the Florida panther. These areas (that are developed) will never be panther habitat again."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also commented on the Ave Maria permit, sending a letter in December 2005 saying that the project may have "substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts" and asking for more information.

In a January follow-up, the EPA said issues might be addressed with more information but raised concerns about cumulative impacts of development around Ave Maria and about water pollution downstream.

The EPA eventually dropped its objections, according to the Army Corps. EPA officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

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