Collier County officials are proposing changes to a rural growth plan they say would cap building in the area, protect agricultural lands from being developed and foster affordable housing.
The Collier County Planning Commission on Thursday continued discussions from earlier this month on the proposed tweaks, but despite a daylong meeting did not finalize recommendations to county commissioners, who have final say over the matter. Planning commissioners are expected to take up the issue again Sept. 25.
A voluntary program in Collier’s Rural Lands Stewardship Area, which spans 185,000 acres in the county’s largely undeveloped interior, allows landowners to build towns and villages in areas with low conservation value using credits earned by giving up their right to develop more environmentally sensitive land.
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The majority of the RLSA’s acreage is privately held, much of it owned by a group of large landowners called the Eastern Collier Property Owners, including Alico Inc., Barron Collier Investment Ltd. and Collier Enterprises Management Inc., among others.
The program was conceived two decades ago to rein in creeping sprawl, but long-awaited tweaks and improvements have been slow to come.
A decade ago, a review committee proposed changes, but although approved by county commissioners, they were shelved in large part over disagreements about who should pay for the growth plan amendment process.
Some of those recommended changes, along with proposals from a 2019 county white paper on the RLSA, are now back on the table.
“We found that these policies, as proposed, further protect and restore natural resource lands, including habitats and flowways,” Anita Jenkins, the county’s interim zoning director, told planning commissioners in early September. ”It goes further in retaining agriculture lands and providing for future growth and economic diversification.”
Among the county staff’s proposed changes to the program are:
- Capping the maximum development in the RLSA at 45,000 acres. To date, county officials say, about 9,000 acres of towns and villages have been either built, approved or are moving through the process under the current rules.
- Adding incentives for landowners to protect agricultural lands, which officials say could protect up to 40,000 acres from development.
- Modifying the size of towns to greater than 1,500 acres and up to 5,000 acres. Under current rules towns can be between 1,000 and 4,000 acres in size.
- Modifying the size of villages to be greater than 300 acres and up to 1,500 acres in the Area of Critical State Concern. Currently, a village can be 100 to 1,000 acres.
- Adding wildlife human interaction plans and incentives for panther corridors.
- Adjusting restoration credits with a tiered system.
- Adding a land set aside for affordable housing.
But the RLSA program has proved divisive.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which sued the county earlier this year over county commissioners’ approval of a rural village in the RLSA, contends that the tweaks don’t go far enough to fix what they see as deficiencies in the program.
The group previously outlined a number of its own recommendations, its concerns ranging from worries about sprawl to the welfare of the endangered Florida panther. A number of speakers Thursday shared similar concerns.
“We believe that some of the proposed amendments would improve the program, while other amendments would fail to fix the Overlay’s flaws or could even exacerbate the issues,” Conservancy officials wrote in documents submitted to the county.
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Other environmental groups, however, say the proposed changes are needed and would help protect wildlife, wetlands and habitat.
The cost of preserving lands without the voluntary program would be far too expensive for the county, representatives for the Florida Wildlife Federation and Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida said during a joint presentation Thursday.
Citing Collier’s purchase of HHH Ranch in North Belle Meade at $10,000 an acre and Lee County’s acquisition of Edison Farms at the same per acre price, Meredith Budd, regional policy director for the FWF, said the 55,000 acres that have already been preserved through the RLSA program would have cost the county $550 million.
“That preserved land is maintained forever at the expense of the landowner and it has that restoration potential, another cost that would be borne by the landowner,” she told planning commissioners.
Budd added that if the county wanted to preserve all of the acres in the RLSA eligible for preservation it would cost “well over $1 billion.”
“The RLSA, inclusive of the amendments before you, in contrast to the underlying zoning, which the land would be subject to without the program, sets up a framework that is not only beneficial to the Florida panther but to other imperiled and common species as well,” Budd said.
Under the area’s current base zoning, developers would be allowed to build one home per five acres, similar to sprawling Golden Gate Estates.
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Probably the most important proposed addition to the program creates incentives for landowners to protect farms and ranches, said Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate for Audubon.
“We overlooked that back in 2002 and this is an opportunity to make good on that,” said Cornell, who was part of the five-year review committee in the late 2000s. “It adds 40,000 acres, estimated, of preservation should the landowners participate in that.”
Much of those lands are in the “Area of Critical State Concern, which is a vital area to not see developed,” he added.
Conservancy representatives have said that 300,000 new residents could eventually move to the RLSA, but the county’s growth model for the RLSA projects 116,000 people by 2070 and 243,000 by 2100.
“People are coming with or without the changes to these policies,” Budd said.
Large landowners say they, too, are supportive of the proposed changes.
"Adopting these amendments is going to send a good signal that the county is putting in place enhancements to the program that have been long overdue," said Al Reynolds, a consultant for the ECPO group and a planner on the town of Ave Maria, the only finished development project in the RLSA to date.
Connect with the reporter at email@example.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.
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