Wednesday, March 21, 2007

New turnpike could spawn sprawl in Fla. panther habitat

By Ryan Hiraki
Originally posted on March 20, 2007

A new toll highway proposed between the Orlando and Immokalee areas is a driving force behind development that could generate urban sprawl from Central Florida to east Lee County.

There are eight development applications filed or on the way, according to state officials, from landowners who own more than a million acres. The owners are asking for permission to build towns and villages that would house hundreds of thousands of people, mainly in rural Glades, Hendry and Highlands counties. And growth advocates have been promoting their agenda.

A key element is the Heartland Parkway — a new, four-lane toll highway estimated at $7 billion for which construction on the first phase has yet to begin and, at best, would be complete in 10 years. No state money is committed to construction, and tolls and private funding likely are essential.

The 152-mile corridor is expected to enhance commerce, hurricane evacuation and travel between Southwest Florida and the Lakeland and Orlando areas.

And the highway has raised questions about urban sprawl, impacts to environmentally sensitive lands, and its potential path through the Alva and Lehigh Acres communities, which could require property acquisition.

Monday, The News-Press editorial board met with Polk County attorney Rick Dantzler and other members of the Heartland Economic Agricultural Rural Task Force, or HEART — a group trying to generate a plan that covers a mix of development, environmental preservation and agricultural sustainability in Central Florida.

"The last thing I want to do is punch a new road through one of the last undeveloped regions of Florida," Dantzler said. He then warned: "Over 6 million new residents are coming south of I-4 by 2030. If you wait until the growth occurs, you get this hodge podge."

The parkway, he said, could include a commuter rail, bike paths, wildlife crossings — elements that allow for better travel, whether it's a family piling in their car, someone taking a train or an endangered Florida panther trying to get from one part of the state to another.

The big players in HEART are the Lykes Bros., a longtime landowner in rural Florida; The Bonita Bay Group, a well-known Southwest Florida developer; Collier Enterprises and Barron Collier Companies, both high-profile landowners in Collier County; and the Atlantic Blue Group, led by CEO and state Sen. J.D. Alexander, grandson of Ben Hill Griffin Jr., a longtime Florida family known for large land holdings, including those in Lee County.

Jon Peck, spokesman with the state's Department of Community Affairs, which oversees big land-use changes, admitted having concerns.

"The question, of course, becomes how many towns that size can that area support and provide the necessary resources for," he said. "What you want to avoid is having a road determine where growth will occur. It ought to be the other way around."

Brad Cornell, a policy advocate with the Florida Audubon Society, is concerned with the development process.

"If you listen to the consultants and the landowners talk about this issue, they would like the policy on how this area gets planned to be based on incentives," Cornell said. "But not everyone's going to play that game. Some will want to do something completely in their own self-interests."

Dantzler did not deny that possibility, but he said this is a long process full of possibilities, some that might happen, some that might not, and they're working on a blueprint to benefit everyone.

"We're only in the first or second inning of a nine-inning game," he said.

The first piece of the Heartland Parkway that would get under way is probably in the Polk County area, and even that's another decade before this piece of road would be built.

Then in east Lee, where the corridor would surely impact residents in Alva and Lehigh on its way to connect with State Road 82, Dantzler said it is just a concept, open for change.

The plan is to avoid sprawl of the past near other major interstates, Dantzler said.

"If it becomes what I-75 is in Southwest Florida, what I-95 is in Southeast Florida, we've failed." AID=/20070320/NEWS0106/70320004/1075

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