EASTERN LANDS

Now is a pivotal time in Southwest Florida's history.

The decisions being made now in our eastern lands will shape Southwest Florida’s future forevermore, and if our precious natural resources are lost, the results are irreversible.

As our coastal communities are nearly built out, the pressure from growth and development continues to march inland at an alarming pace. These projects are massive, many of them being thousands of acres in size. These proposed developments, miles from the coastal urban area, would replace wetlands, agricultural lands and wildlife habitat with strip malls and thousands of houses.

Help us to protect our wetlands, listed species, and wildlife habitat from poorly planned and inappropriately located development.

Potential Impacts to our Eastern Lands

Bellmar

A development called Bellmar, just south of the proposed Rivergrass property, is threatening the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. If approved, it will destroy and fragment important panther habitat and corridors, and add traffic onto already deadly roadways.

Attend the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) public meeting for Bellmar scheduled for December 7, 2023 at the Naples Regional Library located at 650 Central Ave, Naples, FL 34102 from 4 pm to 7 pm.

Florida panther and kit walking along path

hELP PROTECT THE fLORIDA PANTHER

Bellmar is a sprawling development that will consist of strip malls and more than 4,000 homes. It is not based on smart growth principles and is not being built as a walkable community.

Bellmar is proposed to be located in eastern Collier County, south of Oil Well Road and 1 mile northwest of the Panther Refuge. It is about 17 miles east of the city of Naples.

Why we oppose Bellmar

Bellmar will destroy Florida panther habitat and connectivity

There are very few panthers left in the wild. Experts estimate there are between 120-230 adult and subadult panthers, putting their very continued existence at risk. The Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most densely used areas by Florida panthers, and Bellmar is proposed to be located only about 1 mile away. Further, panthers are wide ranging and need connected habitat areas to support their home ranges. Bellmar is located in the most important area for Florida panthers called the Primary Zone, and it is also located directly within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. If we want the panther to recover and survive, this level of habitat loss in this location must not be permitted.

Florida panther walking through habitat
Map that shows Bellmar Project Boundary nears Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge

Bellmar will impact our wildlife

Other rare and imperiled wildlife also depend on the habitat within and around the Bellmar project. For example, the following listed species have been documented in the project area:

  • Crested caracara
  • Bonneted Bat
  • Wood Stork

In fact, the applicant’s surveys show that there is likely bonneted bat roosting within or close to the project, and there is a documented caracara nest in the middle of the project that is not being avoided.

Crested Caracara standing on a grassy hill
Close-up of Florida bonneted bat
Wood stork and fledglings in the nest

Bellmar will infringe on rural lifestyle and have devastating cumulative impacts

Many permits are being considered by FDEP that would transform eastern Collier and eastern Lee into more urbanized areas. There are more than 900 state 404 “dredge and fill” program permits being requested within a 25-mile radius of the Bellmar project.

The map below shows Bellmar along with 10 additional large-scale developments requesting permits in eastern Lee and Collier counties. We believe the cumulative impacts of these permits must be considered for the panther, for increased traffic, and for impacts on the existing rural and natural ecosystems where these projects are being proposed.

Click to enlarge

Bellmar will add deadly traffic into our roadways

Panther vehicle mortality, a leading cause of documented panther deaths, will increase and this could lead to extinction of the Florida panther. Although we believe the number may be higher, the applicant acknowledges that for Bellmar, and their project just north of Bellmar, over 133,000 additional vehicle daily trips would be generated. The roads near Bellmar, such as Golden Gate Blvd. and Oil Well Road, are already deadly hotspots for panther-vehicle collisions.

Bellmar will impact our cherished public lands

Florida panther in front of natural habitat

Bellmar will negatively impact the adjacent Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. This project is an affront to this publicly held 26,000 acre sanctuary which was founded with the purpose of protecting the Florida panther and their habitat.

Join our fight against Bellmar

Bellmar has some but not all of its permits.

Bellmar needs a state 404 permit, which, currently, is issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

The property owner is not entitled to this type or intensity of development. There are other places to build strip malls and housing that are less impactful to the Florida panther and our natural resources. This is not the right place for this type and intensity of development.

Settlement reached on Rivergrass Village

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has reached a settlement with Collier Enterprises regarding Rivergrass Village, the first approved village for the Rural Lands Stewardship Area (RLSA) in eastern Collier County. Our challenge against Rivergrass has been the Conservancy’s largest legal battle in our nearly 60-year history.

Since the creation and inception of the RLSA, over 20 years ago, the Conservancy has understood that rural eastern Collier County is an area targeted for substantial growth. Without proper planning, growth will drastically transform the RLSA’s current landscape of diverse connected ecosystems and important agricultural lands, to sprawling towns and villages in inappropriate locations. Thus, for over two decades, the Conservancy has advocated for the avoidance of important habitat areas, wetlands, and wildlife corridors in future plans for development and road projects within the RLSA.  We have worked tirelessly to prevent harm to our state mammal, the endangered Florida panther, and to ensure that the RLSA remains an ecologically diverse region. Furthermore, the Conservancy has strongly advocated for sustainable development plans, to protect taxpayers, limit traffic, and ensure a better quality of life for current and future generations.

Therefore, we entered settlement discussions with Collier Enterprises focused on negotiating an agreement that would result in benefits that span the entire RLSA.  We are pleased to share with you that we succeeded in securing such positive settlement terms.

First, Collier Enterprises has agreed to permanently preserve 655 acres of primary panther habitat through a conservation easement granted to the Conservancy. For purposes of scale, this 655-acre parcel consists of nearly the same acreage of primary panther habitat that is within the site of Rivergrass Village. Furthermore, this parcel is strategically located between Golden Gate Estates and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, which will permanently protect important habitat that is part of a critical corridor connection between the two areas.

Second, as a part of our settlement, Collier Enterprises has committed to extinguish 65,000 development credits as part of their sale of land to the State of Florida for the Caloosahatchee Big Cypress Corridor, funded during the 2023 Florida Legislative Session. This reduction of credits will significantly reduce the overall development potential for the entire RLSA by 6,500 acres, which is an area greater than six villages the size of the 1,000-acre Rivergrass. The Conservancy believes that this reduction in the RLSA’s overall development footprint will result in fewer impacts to habitats, additional agricultural lands and wetlands saved, and an overall reduction in future traffic within the region.

Not only did our Rivergrass challenge result in a better outcome for the RLSA, but we also had a significant victory in the Second District Court of Appeal (DCA). Because of our challenge, the DCA solidified the public’s right to challenge a development order on the grounds that a development order illegally adds traffic congestion and unlawfully burdens taxpayers to cover costs for new infrastructure, services, and facilities needed to support the new development. Thus, our challenge against Rivergrass confirmed that Florida citizens have a right to challenge illegal damaging growth.

While we continue to believe Rivergrass is unwise for the many reasons we have argued, we are pleased that the process of our lawsuit has elevated the conversation about the impacts of new towns and villages on our natural resources, economy, and quality of life.

We are immensely grateful to our Board, members, and many supporters who stood by the Conservancy throughout this lengthy, yet important, three-year challenge. Furthermore, we are deeply appreciative of the 13 civic and environmental organizations who filed amicus briefs in support of our appeal, including:

  • 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
  • Friends of the Everglades and Tropical Audubon Society represented by the Everglades Law Center.

The Conservancy will continue its nearly 60-year legacy of advocating for sustainable development and finding solutions that balance the needs of our growing community with the preservation of our natural resources.

interested in learning more? dive deep into the documents and resources on this topic and others by heading to the Policy Resource Center!

AN EXPLODING POPULATION IN SOUTHWEST FLORIDA HAS RESULTED IN UNPRECEDENTED INCREASES IN DEVELOPMENT.

The Gulf Coast area is nearly built-out and now growth is headed inland - toward our region's last remaining open spaces and more fragile ecosystems.

Why It Matters

Inappropriate development inland will have major consequences on our wildlife, our water and our quality of life.

The Conservancy believes that growth and preservation of our natural resources can work together. We endorse the use of strong planning tools and comprehensive plans so development is handled in a responsible, sustainable manner.

Read a five-part series of compelling articles about the history of Collier County, how we got to where we are today, and why the impacts of development should matter to you.

interested in learning more? dive deep into the documents and resources on this topic and others by heading to the Policy Resource Center!

Play Video

As part of the development march eastward, the Eastern Collier “Habitat Conservation Plan” was being formally considered that would permit more than 45,000 acres of rural lands to be destroyed – including lands relied on by endangered wildlife species. If it had been approved, it would have resulted in incidental take permits for 19 protected state and federally listed species.

What WAs proposed by the HCP?

  • 45,000 acres of intense mining and residential/commercial development – the equivalent of nine new Town of Ave Marias!
  • Continued or intensified agriculture, oil exploration and drilling in the “preserve” areas meant to mitigate impacts

Our Concerns

Here are the Conservancy's concerns regarding what would have occurred if HCP were to be approved:

  • Loss of habitat and impacts for several rare and unique species including the scrub jay, caracara, wood stork, red cockaded woodpecker, snail kite, indigo snake, bonneted bat, and the Florida panther.
  • Additional impacts from associated infrastructure and new roads to support tens of thousands of new homes in a currently rural and undeveloped area.
  • Unknown total development footprint (45,000 acre minimum, but there is potential for additional development), as adjacent development is likely to sprawl from these new towns.
  • Impacts to endangered species and their habitats not adequately avoided and minimized as required by the Endangered Species Act.
  • Transportation impacts are not accounted for in the assessment of impacts. There has already been a record number of Florida panther deaths on roadways and these deaths are likely to increase from the several new towns and developments proposed by the HCP.
  • The HCP will authorize the development Rural Lands West (previously known as Town of Big Cypress, and also known as Longwater and Rivergrass), which is proposed on a heavily-utilized Florida panther habitat.

The HCP proposed conversion of natural and rural lands to an urban area equivalent to that of Washington DC.

The decisions made regarding lands within Collier County’s designated Rural Lands Stewardship Area will shape the future of Southwest Florida and determine the fate of the Florida panther.

Wood Stork
Gopher Tortoise (6)

interested in learning more? dive deep into the documents and resources on this topic and others by heading to the Policy Resource Center!