The three-year process to amend Collier County’s 300 square mile growth plan for the Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA) came to a close on July 13 when the Board of County Commissioners voted to approve amendments to the program. The Conservancy opposed the amendments because the revised plan increased the development capacity of the RLSA contrary to the recommendations of many who spoke at the workshops and meetings. The amendments failed to solve serious issues with the program, both economic and environmental, such as excessive costs for roads and other infrastructure due to a sprawling plan, significant losses of important agricultural lands, and the tragic destruction of endangered Florida panther habitat.
Development plans of three recently approved villages provided solid proof that these and other serious issues are already a reality. Although the Conservancy regrets that the Board adopted the amendments, the final hearing culminated with a few silver linings and a frank discussion of the RLSA’s true development potential.
The bright side was that the Board acknowledged that the program should be reviewed again sooner rather than the stipulated seven years stating that there are too many unknown factors making it impossible to predict the program’s outcomes.
Commissioner Bill McDaniel said that the RLSA program “needs to be touched on a regular basis” so that “any unintended consequences that will potentially come, need to be addressed in as expeditiously manner as possible.” Commissioner Rick LoCastro agreed and stated that “this should be a very dynamic process.” Commissioner Burt Saunders, who earlier in the meeting professed concerns over the potential need for a new road network in the RLSA at the County’s expense, asked the County Attorney if they could make changes to the RLSA overlay at any time without triggering property rights claims as “the underlying zoning is still in place.”
County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow replied, “Correct, you could end the RLSA program today if you wanted to.” Even a representative of Eastern Collier Property Owners (ECPO) agreed that changes could be warranted once new data comes forward.
The Conservancy appreciated the Board’s acknowledgment that the amendments may not solve all the program’s issues and that there was a need to closely monitor the program. At previous RLSA meetings staff mostly touted the benefits of the program and dismissed serious concerns brought forth by those who opposed the amendments, such as the Conservancy and League of Women Voters. The County’s former Growth Management Head, Thaddeus Cohen, made it clear that they would not tinker too much with a program that he saw as successful. Staff would only consider minor tweaks that were modeled after the outdated 2007-2009 amendments which were never officially implemented, and there would be no significant changes to the program that were not endorsed by RLSA landowners and developers.
Although the Conservancy believes the amendments will more heavily tip the scales toward developers’ interests, we found a second silver lining in that final Board adoption hearing. Finally, there was an open and frank discussion regarding the RLSA’s true development capacity.
Up until that meeting, staff, ECPO, and even other environmental groups provided only best-case, yet unrealistic, development outcomes for the RLSA that maximized preservation and minimized development. As an example, at the May 6th Planning Commission meeting an ECPO representative, Al Reynolds, promised, “And if you adopt these amendments, three out of four acres is not going to be developed either for natural resource protection, wetlands, uplands, water retention, or agriculture.” If Mr. Reynold’s statement was true, then approximately 130,000 acres of the RLSA would be placed in preservation, while development would be limited to approximately 45,000 acres.
However, the Conservancy pointed out, at the July 13 adoption hearing, that ECPO’s claims were exaggerated because nearly 90,000 acres of the 130,000 acres promised as preservation were already protected through existing policies. Furthermore, since ECPO does not even own all the lands they claim will be preserved, how can they guarantee other landowners will agree to give up their development rights? They can’t.
Like the Conservancy, Commissioner Saunders also wanted to get to the truth. At this final hearing, he asked Collier County’s new Planning Director, Mike Bosi:
“This concerns the number of acres that are going to be preserved and the number of acres that are going to be developed. Because landowners always have the option to build at one home per five acres, is it possible that more than 45,000 acres of the RLSA will be developed and there will be less than 130,000 acres in preservation?”
In which Mr. Bosi replied:
“The direct answer to that is yes. Landowners who have agricultural property that are not interested in joining this Overlay, they have the right associated with that land to develop at one unit per five acres. So there can be some leftover development.”
That “leftover development” that Mr. Bosi mentioned could be as much as 40,000 acres, which is above and beyond the 45,000 acres that the program allows for compact rural development (towns and villages) and beyond what ECPO had been promising to sway support for the amendments. The worst-case development scenario for the RLSA, which was not given any attention at any of the meetings, other than by the Conservancy and the League of Women Voters, is that the total development capacity could potentially exceed 85,000 acres, a size larger than the landmass of Tampa.
The loss of precious agricultural lands, such as row crops, citrus groves, pastures, and fallow fields, would be immense and the loss of primary panther habitat would be catastrophic. However, since Collier County is under new management and new planning staff are at the helm, the Conservancy has renewed hope that it is possible these lands could be better protected in the future.
After Mr. Bosi referred to the “leftover development,” he then continued:
“That’s another area we think, during the next restudy, that we can maybe take a better tackle at. What is the leftovers, the leftovers? Is there a better way that we can incentivize those leftover lands that aren’t within that 45,000 [acre] footprint but we do know they have development rights associated with it? Is there a better way that we can incentivize them to participate in a similar type of program or what’s a better strategy? I don’t quite know what that it is right now, but most certainly there could be.”
Staff’s willingness to concede that more progress must be made was refreshing. During the next restudy, the Conservancy will encourage Collier County to devise a better plan for the RLSA – a plan that considers realistic development outcomes based on currently available data. Soon we will know a better timeframe for when that may happen.
At the next Board of County Commissioner’s meeting on September 14, staff will bring forward what Commissioner Andy Solis called, a “long-range thumbnail schedule” for the next RLSA restudy. We agree with the Board that the RLSA program must be a dynamic process. A great quality of life for all of Collier’s future generations hinges on an RLSA program that not only meets its goals, but is continually and carefully monitored and improved.