Court of Appeal sides with the Conservancy: We have a right to challenge Rivergrass on grounds of traffic and taxpayer impacts

December 27, 2022

When the Collier County Board of County Commissioners approved Rivergrass Village in 2020, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, along with many others, argued that Rivergrass Village would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, adversely impact our community and wildlife, and would greatly exacerbate our worsening traffic situation. The Conservancy alone stood up to the County in court, asserting that the County failed to comply with the Florida Community Planning Act.

Once in court, the Conservancy argued that the County’s comprehensive plan―including important traffic laws and the fiscal neutrality rule that applies to rural areas―requires villages (and towns) like Rivergrass to cover all costs for infrastructure, services, and facilities needed to support the new population. The Conservancy was preparing to provide substantial evidence to support our claims that Rivergrass will create significant traffic issues and will require huge taxpayer subsidies, but we were denied our day in court on these issues.

Why? Collier County and Collier Enterprises (Rivergrass’ developer) argued that the Conservancy could not challenge Rivergrass based on traffic issues and its cost burden to taxpayers. Surprisingly, the County and the developer even argued on appeal that the public could only challenge a development order for impacts created within the development site and that traffic and fiscal neutrality issues are “off-site” issues. This was quite an astonishing argument coming from Collier County. Who are they supposed to protect, if not the residents of the County? Moreover, the County depends on developer impact fees to pay for improvements necessary to support growth, such as new or widened roads, added treatment capacity for water and sewer, fire stations, and new schools, all of which are typically built “off-site.” Thus, it would seem to be in the County’s interest that these fees are appropriately calculated.

Fortunately, the Florida appeals Court rejected these baseless arguments and ruled in the Conservancy’s favor. In their written opinion, the appellate Court stated,

The question we address here is whether the Conservancy’s claims concerning the traffic and fiscal impacts of the Rivergrass Village development could be brought within the ambit of a section 163.3215 action. The circuit court concluded that they couldn’t. . . . We disagree.

Therefore, the Court concluded: We are compelled to reverse that aspect of the judgment below and remand for further proceedings.

Eastern Collier County has become a focal point for new large-scale developments, so residents of Collier County must have all tools available to enforce comprehensive plan policies. In the last three years alone, five villages were approved for development in this area (Rivergrass, Skysail, Longwater, Bellmar, and Brightshore). According to the developers’ documents, those villages will result in approximately 110,000 new daily vehicle trips and a combined population of 26,000 residents, which is greater than the number of people currently living in the City of Naples.

And this is just the start. Developers are looking to this area for much more development, possibly thirty-five more villages, all within one of the most biologically rich and ecologically important regions in the entire state. There is a lot at stake, and developments must be built according to Collier County’s important growth management rules.

The Conservancy is very pleased that the appellate court confirmed our legal right to challenge a development order based on traffic and taxpayer costs. We are eager to show at trial how Rivergrass fails to comply with the law and will adversely impact the community and the people of Collier County.

We thank the 13 civic and environmental organizations who supported our appeal: Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club Florida, Strong Towns, League of Women Voters of Collier County, Florida Rights of Nature Network, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Calusa Waterkeeper, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, Cypress Cove Landkeepers, Stone Crab Alliance, Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association, and Friends of the Everglades and Tropical Audubon Society represented by the Everglades Law Center.

Furthermore, we remain grateful to our supporters and members who continue to stand with the Conservancy, as we continue our long and distinguished 59-year history of advocating for sustainable development and finding solutions that balance the needs of our growing community with the preservation of our natural resources.