The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has filed its initial brief in Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal seeking to overturn the trial court’s ruling on its challenge to the development of Rivergrass Village. The development is located within the Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA), adopted in 2002 to protect wetlands and listed species habitat; prevent the premature conversion of agricultural lands; and avoid sprawl in eastern Collier County.
The Conservancy’s appeal brief focuses on the fact that the trial court declined to hear evidence that Rivergrass Village will cost Collier County taxpayers millions of dollars, will result in widespread worsening of traffic congestion, and fails to comply with the Collier County Land Development Code.
Recently, thirteen environmental and civic organizations filed an amicus brief in support of the Conservancy’s appeal, including:
- Center for Biological Diversity
- Sierra Club Florida
- League of Women Voters of Collier County
- Strong Towns
- Florida Rights of Nature Network
- Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
- Calusa Waterkeeper
- Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida
- Cypress Cove Landkeepers
- Stone Crab Alliance
- Friends of the Everglades & Tropical Audubon Society (represented by Everglades Law Center)
- Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association
“Numerous local, state and national organizations are joining us in recognizing that the repercussions of the case are serious and could eviscerate the public’s ability to challenge irresponsible development throughout much of Florida if the lower court’s incorrect ruling is upheld,” said Rob Moher, president and CEO, Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “The Conservancy’s appeal is about ensuring good governance, defending democracy and maintaining the public’s right to challenge illegal decisions made by our local government.”
April Olson, Senior Environmental Planning Specialist for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, stated, “The Conservancy is optimistic, and we strongly believe that we will win the Rivergrass appeal because Florida’s Community Planning Act, which relies on citizens to enforce comprehensive plans, clearly states that the entire comprehensive plan matters, not just bits and pieces of the plan.”
Earlier this year, Florida’s First District Court of Appeal validated the Conservancy’s position. In the case of Imhof v. Walton County, the appellate court held that the Walton County trial court erred in limiting claims that could be brought forth in a challenge to a development order.
“In the Walton County case, the panel of three appellate judges stated that ‘the trial court should have considered all their claims of inconsistency’ because all rules of the comprehensive plan matter,” said Nicole Johnson, director of environmental policy, Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “This is encouraging as the Walton County ruling increases the likelihood that the Second District will likewise reverse the trial court’s ruling on Rivergrass.”
In 2020, the Conservancy filed a lawsuit in Florida’s 20th Judicial Circuit Court contending that the Rivergrass Village Stewardship Receiving Area (SRA) is inconsistent with RLSA policies in the Collier County Growth Management Plan and Land Development Code.
“The Conservancy advocates for smart growth and development in Southwest Florida that complies with the law, avoids sprawl, is fiscally responsible and avoids impacts to irreplaceable natural resources,” says Moher. “With our mission to protect our water, land, wildlife and our future, we continue to challenge Rivergrass with determination, thoughtful and deliberate planning, and an unwavering commitment to science and facts.”
Rivergrass Village was approved on Jan. 28, 2020, by the Collier County Board of County Commissioners in a 3-2 vote, despite a recommendation of denial by the Planning Commission and a statement by Collier County staff that the project does not meet the intent of the RLSA policies pertaining to new development.