Saturday, August 19, 2006

I-75 interchange may be built in Florida panther habitat

By ryan hiraki
Originally posted on August 16, 2006

An analysis of more than 20 studies and a consultant's interpretation could determine the fate of a controversial interchange in Estero.

Lee County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to hire a consultant to compile information from 19 studies. They're trying to determine what impact a Coconut Road interchange would have on sensitive wetlands east of Interstate 75.

The interchange has become the focal point of a debate over how much development to allow on more than 90,000 acres in east Lee County.

The land is known as the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource area, where the county gets part of its drinking water supply and the endangered Florida panther roams.

Existing rules allow only agriculture, mining and one home for every 10 acres.

Commissioner Bob Janes said the county is in a position to learn what the studies have in common and how to accommodate smart growth.

"We have to look at it comprehensively," he said. "We can't look at it in terms of an interchange. That's piece-mealing it."

County Manager Don Stilwell said his staff would return in a month with a proposal on a consultant.

It's unclear how much a consultant will cost, but environmentalists and Estero residents left Tuesday's meeting hopeful that this will bring about a solution to a sensitive issue.

Estero activist Arnold Rosenthal smiled and nodded. Nicole Ryan, of The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the county seems to be moving in the right direction.

The interchange issue has been debated since the late 1980s.

Bonita Springs officials revived the argument in February 2005, when they did a study that showed an interchange would relieve traffic on Bonita Beach and Corkscrew roads. The roads are the only ones with I-75 interchanges in Bonita and Estero.

Proponents say the traffic relief will be more evident during hurricane evacuations because the interchange would connect to County Road 951. They insist that the interchange does not guarantee development on the sensitive wetlands east of Interstate 75.

Opponents, such as Commissioner Ray Judah and Rosenthal, say traffic relief will be minimal and special interests are behind the interchange.

The discussion Tuesday was similar to the one the commission had in May when it reached no decision.

"This discussion is going to continue to fracture this community," Commissioner John Albion said. "We need to get this done."

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