Friday, December 08, 2006

Study warns of urbanization of Florida panther stronghold

The news was greeted with a shrug by Southwest Florida planners, who have long grown accustomed to dire warnings about the ramifications of growth

By Jeremy Cox
Thursday, December 7, 2006

The growth explosion in Lee and Collier counties threatens to eat every acre of land that hasn’t been turned into concrete yet, a new study warns.

The result: An unbroken urban wall will reach from the Gulf of Mexico to the Hendry County line across northern Collier, and the only large development-free spot in Lee will be east of Estero.

That will be the case unless state and local officials toughen growth rules, the head of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Florida said Wednesday. And it will happen relatively soon — some time between 2040 and 2060.

The organization released a pair of studies Wednesday aimed at painting a picture of what Florida will look like in 2060, when its population is expected to double to 35.8 million people.

“Collier basically fully develops and goes north and east” to fill parts of Hendry and Glades counties, 1000 Friends Executive Director Charles Pattison said. “It shows that if we continue the pattern of development we’ve got, we’re going to lose the very things that brought us to Florida.”

The news was greeted with a shrug by Southwest Florida planners, who have long grown accustomed to dire warnings about the ramifications of growth. Lee and Collier counties each have their own plans to confront the issue — each dogged by doubts about their effectiveness.

In one study, researchers with the University of Florida’s GeoPlan Center predicted where development will occur. Statewide, the study found roughly 7 million acres of rural land will be converted to urban land by 2060, leaving the Big Bend area near the Panhandle as the only sizable unpaved space.

Southwest Florida’s new developments will eat away 1.1 million additional acres of open land, leading to a nearly three-fold expansion of the existing urban strip. The population will skyrocket from 1.2 million to 3.5 million in the region, which includes Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry, Glades, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

The study forecasts Collier’s population to reach 963,000 and Lee’s to hit 1.4 million. Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties will be built out.

Under such a scenario, the bulk of Collier’s open lands will be penned in Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve and other tracts already under public ownership.

In the second report, Georgia Tech’s Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development suggested ways to avoid losing valuable natural areas and farm fields. Among them: accelerating the land-acquisition program and restricting rural land conversions to only those projects that have a “significant public benefit.”

One of that report’s main recommendations is to funnel people into new towns in an effort to prevent sprawl along the edges of existing urban areas.

Southwest Florida is leading the way in the concept of having developers set aside open land in exchange for converting nearby areas into towns. Babcock Ranch, straddling the border of Lee and Charlotte counties, and Ave Maria, a planned university town in Collier, are the models to follow, Pattison said.

A plan, written by WilsonMiller on behalf of major landowners in the area, carves up 200,000 acres in northeast Collier into properties that can be developed and those that can’t. Opponents have called the result, known as the Rural Land Stewardship Area, a license to develop.

“There shouldn’t be any new homes in that area. This is Florida panther habitat,” Florida Sierra Club Director Frank Jackalone said. “These lands should be set aside for wild lands or to retain agricultural lands.”

If new towns are the answer to sprawl, Jackalone asks, why is Collier Enterprises proposing another town, dubbed Big Cypress, on the southern edge of Ave Maria?

Joe Schmitt, Collier’s administrator of community development, defended the growth plan, saying “it’s not a free-for-all.”

The plan directs growth “to areas that already are impacted and are deemed to be less viable from an environmental standpoint,” Schmitt added.

Meanwhile, Lee County is in no hurry to follow Collier’s lead.

“I don’t understand why all the conservation organizations think the rural land stewardship program is a good thing,” said Paul O’Connor, Lee’s planning chief. “It always seems like it’s plopping this urban use in the middle of a rural area.”

For its part, Lee has set aside nearly 100,000 acres, mostly in its southeast corner, to help stop sprawl and give rain water a place to seep into the aquifer. Building in that region, called the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource area, is limited to one home for every 10 acres.

The backers of 1000 Friends of Florida’s studies include several entities with a keen interest in the way the state develops: WilsonMiller, the Naples-based planning firm; St. Joe Company, the state’s largest land owner; A. Duda & Sons, a Central Florida agribusiness giant; and the high-profile environmental group The Nature Conservancy.

Pattison said those sponsors “had no editorial oversight over any of the materials.”

Jackalone said he wasn’t sure if the relationship colored the results of the studies. But, he added, several of the donors on 1000 Friends’ list “are clearly involved in activities that are harmful to the environment.” looming_urbanization_counties/?local_news

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