Thursday, September 28, 2006

New 25,000-home development planned for Florida panther country

Big plans, big questions
22,000-acre Big Cypress -- twice the size of the city of Naples -- is planned as a self-sustaining community surrounded by a nature preserve

By Eric Staats

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

In the 1920s, New York advertising magnate Barron Gift Collier began carving civilization out of a wilderness that would become Collier County.

Some 80 years later, the company that traces its roots to that pioneer is at it again, with plans to found a new town, dubbed Big Cypress, east of Golden Gate Estates.

Collier Enterprises wants to build some 25,000 homes in a new town and in a scattering of smaller villages and hamlets on 8,000 acres of farmland surrounded by 14,000 acres of preserve. The project would take 25 to 30 years to build. Work won’t get started until at least 2010, Collier Enterprises CEO Tom Flood said.

Big Cypress, along with its neighbor, Ave Maria University and its companion town, are products of a landmark 2002 growth plan that requires landowners to preserve and restore land to earn credits for development.

The 22,000-acre Big Cypress district is more than 34 square miles — about twice the size of the city of Naples — and represents an unprecedented blank slate to plan for growth in Collier County.

The company is planning public workshops to get community input on the Big Cypress plans after a kickoff event in late October. Details still are being planned.

The workshops would focus on land conservation, agriculture, parks, schools, economic development, roads and housing, according to the company.

Flood said the goal of the company’s planning is to make Big Cypress a self-sustaining town that fits with the rural character of eastern Collier County.

“We don’t see this as a bedroom community of Naples,” Flood said. “We see this as a place for people to live and work.”

The center of the town would be built in the middle of a loop created by a realignment of Oil Well Road and an extension of Randall Boulevard. Immokalee Road and Golden Gate Boulevard also would provide access to Big Cypress.

Plans don’t include hooking up the Vanderbilt Beach Road extension to Big Cypress. Some Golden Gate Estates residents had blamed the need for the controversial extension on the Collier company plans.

Flood said the extension is “not driving our thinking at all” and that it would be “fine with him” if the extension never hooks up to Big Cypress.

Plans propose a “conceptual alternative interchange” at Interstate 75 (Alligator Alley) with a new road that would meander north, through Big Cypress to Immokalee Road.

The conceptual alternate location is about two miles east of the spot of a proposed I-75 interchange at Everglades Boulevard, which would have to be widened to six lanes, putting it through residents’ yards and driveways, Flood said.

The conceptual road through Big Cypress would wind past six villages, each with up to 1,000 acres. Plans also show two hamlets, each with up to 100 acres.

Flood said the company wants to create a 23-mile walking trail that would connect the villages and lend a rural twist to the project.

Besides the 14,000 acres of preserve within the district boundaries, Collier Enterprises also will have to preserve 13,000 acres beyond the new town to earn enough development credits under the 2002 growth plan.

Collier County Audubon Society policy advocate Brad Cornell said the Big Cypress plans still must overcome questions about size and compatibility with surrounding land, including habitat for the endangered Florida habitat and woodstork.

“They (the Big Cypress plans) are big; they’re really big,” Cornell said. “In every respect it’s big, and there’s a lot of questions left unanswered in my mind.”

For example, Cornell said he wants to know more about how the company will mitigate the effects of its proposed interchange at I-75.

Cornell said the mitigation should involve buying up panther habitat in Golden Gate Estates between North Belle Meade and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

Another question is where Collier Enterprises will set aside the additional 13,000 acres it needs to earn development credits under the 2002 plan.

“We’re still mulling the road and how to optimize (the mitigation) for environmental benefit,” Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.

Overall, though, the plans are within the scope of the 2002 growth plan and “that’s a good thing,” Payton said.

She said environmental groups who backed the 2002 plan didn’t anticipate that new towns would start popping up so quickly. That also means preserve land is getting set aside more quickly.

“It is seeing our county change quicker than we’d like to see it change, but we’re prepared — we have a plan,” she said.

The next step is to embark on what Flood says is a genuine effort to get input from the town’s neighbors. The biggest neighbor is Golden Gate Estates.

“I think residents of Golden Gate Estates will be interested in what we’re doing and I hope they’ll conclude that we’re going to be good neighbors,” Flood said.

Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association President Mark Teaters said, from what he’s heard so far, the company is “making the right moves.”

Teaters acknowledges, though, that Collier Enterprises might face a skeptical crowd in Golden Gate Estates residents who fear their rural lifestyle is slipping away.

“It’s not ever going to be the same,” Teaters said. “Things are going to change.”

Some changes will be for the better, Teaters said.

He said Big Cypress plans will bring commercial services closer and help solve traffic problems in the Estates.

Immokalee community leader Fred Thomas said the plans “make all the sense in the world.”

“It will help focus everyone’s attention on making Immokalee the industrial hub of Collier County,” Thomas said.

At the same time the company is touting plans for Big Cypress, the company is unveiling plans for a 580-acre expansion of an industrial park and 470-acre moderately priced housing development southeast of the Immokalee Airport.

The company also is talking with Collier County officials about speeding up planning for a bypass road around Immokalee, Flood said. He said Collier Enterprises is willing to provide land it owns for a link in the bypass. The road also would pass through land owned by Barron Collier Cos. and Consolidated Citrus.

“It’s time to get a shovel in the ground,” Flood said. big_plans_big_questions/?growth

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