Ave Maria quick to spur concerns over land use

Officials downplay fears of sprawl, ‘knee-jerk’ plans

Ave Maria University is getting a generally warm reception as it prepares to open near Immokalee in 2006 — but some environmental and planning concerns are already being raised.

VALUABLE LAND: An employee of Agmart sprays tomato plants on land owned by the Barron Collier Companies. The Naples land company is donating 750 acres for Ave Maria University and its surrounding town.
Photos by ANDREW WEST/news-press.com

Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza and chairman of Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich., is endowing the new school with $200 million. Barron Collier Companies, a Naples land company, is donating 750 acres and will build a town surrounding the university.

The arrangement is drawing analogies by some to Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero, where Alico Inc. donated about the same amount of land in the middle of about 12,000 acres of Alico property — much of which has been sold off for golf course developments.

Some plans for the land around FGCU are controversial, but Nancy Payton, Florida Wildlife Federation field representative in Collier, said she has a better feeling about Ave Maria than she does about FGCU.

“One very big difference from Lee County is that Collier County did its planning in advance and is not doing this knee-jerk planning that’s being done in Lee,” she said, noting the Ginn Co. is trying to develop a golf course community east of FGCU despite assurances by the county commission that only stand-alone courses would be allowed.

In eastern Collier, by contrast, the state Department of Community Affairs is reviewing and is expected to approve a county policy that calls for a system under which owners of about 200,000 acres designated “rural lands” would be in areas designated as receiving, sending or neutral for growth.

Owners of the receiving areas would be able to pay owners of sending-area properties to transfer the right to develop at high densities, such as Ave Maria would require. As a result, the sending areas would forever be allowed only low-density development.

That should work better than the situation around FGCU, she said. “Hopefully we’ve learned from Lee’s experience.”

Vincent Cautero, former Collier County community development administrator and now vice president of planning for Naples-based Coastal Engineering Consultants, said Ave Maria will take up a big part of the available development credits. “If they soak up all the density, there won’t be anything left around there.”

But Mark Morton, project manager for Barron Collier, said there’s enough development credits for 20,000 acres of denser development — Ave Maria’s 5,000 will leave plenty for other nodes.

Ave Maria should be “right under the threshold” for having to file an application for a development of regional impact, said Dan Trescott, senior planner for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. A DRI — required for developments that will affect more than their immediate surroundings — requires a more elaborate justification than other zoning categories.

WORKING ON A VISION: Tom Jones, the director of government affairs for the Barron Collier Companies stands on land that will be Ave Maria University and the surrounding town. Jones is working to bring the university to the area five miles south of Immokalee and 10 miles northeast of Golden Gate Estates.

Still, Ave Maria’s prospective neighbors are looking closely at how it will affect nearby communities.

Dick Nogaj, whose private, nonprofit Jubilation Development Corp. is building homes for Immokalee residents of moderate means, said he and other local business leaders have formed the Build Immokalee Group to look into ways to “spur major growth in Immokalee.”

The group has no specific proposals, he said, but will be trying to involve Immokalee more in the university’s planning.

“Right now they’re planning on providing the housing on site,” he said. “If we can provide them a viable alternative, they may be considering whether they need to duplicate the infrastructure we already have in Immokalee. We sure would like to talk to them about that.”

Morton said detailed plans haven’t been made but the plan is to make the university town as self-contained as possible — it will have its own sewer system, for example, and will be designed so students, faculty and staff will be able to live there and often walk to work.

“The policies were established to require compact development” for the villages created in the rural lands, he said. “They’re required to be compact.”

But, he said, “We’re not creating sprawl” because the community will be designed to minimize trips elsewhere. “I can’t imagine anybody wanting to live anywhere but there.”

But Payton said she’s concerned that Ave Maria may put development pressure on northern Golden Gate Estates, where people who want a little elbow room can find large, inexpensive lots.

“I’m yet to be convinced that this is going to be a boon for Immokalee,” she said. “I do think that given a choice between living in Immokalee and living in Golden Gate, they’re going to choose Golden Gate. I think it’s going to be hard for Immokalee to make itself attractive to middle-class people.”

The town would be about five miles south of Immokalee and about 10 miles northeast of Golden Gate.

While the land earmarked for the town already is under cultivation and not environmentally sensitive, Payton said it’s also close to Camp Keais Strand, a flow way for water that runs into the Everglades.

University president Nick Healy said he’s aware of environmentalists’ concerns and that “we will not be doing any development near Camp Keais; there will be a buffer zone. The town itself will be quite far from there.”

Connie Dean, community liaison for the county Transportation Division, said there haven’t been any meetings with Barron Collier or Ave Maria about roads, but Healy said the main entrance would be on Oil Well Road, which would be the main route to Naples. Access to Immokalee will be by an entrance on Camp Keais Road, he said.

People in Immokalee will benefit mainly by the opportunity to work in a much broader range of jobs, he said — the town now has mainly low-paying agricultural work.

Other help will come from people at the school who simply want to help, he said. “Being Christian, we have a deep responsibility to help those who are less financially well off, and I would certainly expect our students and faculty and staff will be doing extensive outreach. My wife has already volunteered to teach English to stay-at-home mothers.”

The university’s first volunteer is Spencer Nunley, 64, of Naples, a retired corporate attorney from Pittsburgh who read about the university the day after the Nov. 20 news conference announcing it. The next day he drove over to Ave Maria’s temporary quarters in the Vineyards, a community east of Interstate 75, and offered his services.

“I’ve been down here for two years and I just got all the corporate stress out of my system,” he said. “I’ll do anything, like listen to the telephone, help with mailings, take people back and forth to the airport.”

Wayne Daltry, Smart Growth coordinator for Lee County and former planning council director, said it may eventually turn out that Ave Maria’s best chance for success is its origins with the deep pockets and long-term commitment of Barron Collier, Domino’s Pizza and the Catholic Church.

“It’s been described as basically a company town,” he said, and those are often successful because they have a specific reason to exist for long periods. “It’s unlikely the Catholic Church goes under, unlike a coal mine that runs out of coal.”