Tuesday, October 10, 2006

New luxury development would eat into Florida panther habitat

Builder offering affordable perk in test of county's growth plan

By Jeremy Cox
Monday, October 9, 2006

The nation's largest builder of luxury homes plans to reach beyond Collier County's urban boundary with a golf course community, setting up a major test of the county's newly beefed-up growth plan.

Toll Brothers is asking for three growth plan amendments, the most sought for a single project in recent memory.

"I think it's a pretty good indication they're trying to fit something in where it doesn't belong," said Brad Cornell of the Collier Audubon Society, one of several environmental advocates lining up against the proposal.

To sweeten the deal, the company is offering to peg 100 homes toward affordable housing.

The development, as proposed, would straddle the county's urban barrier, which runs parallel to Collier Boulevard one mile east of the highway. The boundary was created in a landmark 2002 growth plan.

Toll Brothers' obstacles don't end with the county's growth rules. The project also would bisect an ancient slough, destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands, swallow part of a state forest and eat into the endangered Florida panther's dwindling habitat.

The Toll Brothers project resembles a gerrymandered congressional district, lying on the east side of Collier Boulevard near Rattlesnake Hammock Road.

The company is negotiating to buy the famed "Mile-O-Mud" swamp buggy track. Plans submitted to the county already show the attraction relocated to the southeast corner of the project just north of Sabal Palm Road.

"It seems we're getting closer to a deal," said Rob Swift, president of the nonprofit Swamp Buggy Inc. "But we haven't gotten a deal yet."

Bob Mulhere of the RWA consulting firm, who is representing Toll Brothers' interests, referred calls to Toll's marketing department in West Palm Beach. A marketing representative said it is too early to comment on the company's plans.

Collier County development reviewers could take several months to process Toll's application before the matter goes before the County Commission. The commission also would have to OK any growth plan amendments, along with state planners.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District also are reviewing the company's request to fill in wetlands — no small matter in itself. Nearly 80 percent of the project's 2,250 acres qualify as wetlands.

"Due to the size and number of wetland acres proposed to be impacted," an Environmental Protection Agency official wrote after reviewing the project in May, "there is a potential for significant degradation and water quality impacts downstream from this development."

The federal government can issue wetlands-destruction permits but the applicant must prove there's no way around the impact. A National Wildlife Federation letter questions whether a golf course community fits that description and concludes that it "hardly qualifies."

While Toll plans to preserve 1,200 acres of those wetlands, it wants to build 1,889 homes on the remaining acreage. The Sembler Co. has signed on to construct 650,000 square feet of retail and office space.

There's a reason the property is so wet.

A slough that feeds Rookery Bay, home to a national estuarine reserve, runs through the heart of the project. Plans call for disrupting that flow with a large lake, a camp site for junior deputies, the relocated swamp buggy track and homes.

"It's not good for sheet flow," said Nancy Payton of the Florida Wildlife Federation.

The project also includes areas that would otherwise become part of the Picayune Strand State Forest. A 45-acre chunk of the forest would become surrounded by the project and have the swamp buggy track as its neighbor.

One of the reasons the state identified the western side of Picayune, known as Belle Meade, for preservation was because it provided rare running room for panthers. The Toll site is entirely within the federally designated panther primary zone, where the big cats are most likely to roam, according to a National Wildlife Federation letter.

In the property's current state, Toll Brothers could build 922 homes, according to Collier's zoning rules. But the 2002 growth plan allows the company to transfer the rights to construct another 614 homes from environmentally sensitive "sending" lands elsewhere within the project.

Toll wants more than that.

One requested growth plan revision calls for expanding the land area of one of the development's "activity centers," though it is unclear by how much or what an activity center is.

"To address the need to provide affordable workforce housing," according to RWA's submitted documents, Toll would like to expand development within the urban boundary by one home for every two acres. That would be another amendment.

Lastly, the developer is seeking to gain building capacity by applying a perk intended for use in the less sensitive "receiving" areas to portions of the project's "sending" lands.

There's a good chance the development proposal, as is the case with many of its ilk, won't look the same after it wends its way through Collier's development-review channels, Commissioner Jim Coletta said.

http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2006/oct/09/ toll_bros_testing_boundaries/?local_news

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