Raucous crowd sounds off on Estates water flow restoration plan

Friday, July 12, 2002

By ERIC STAATS, emstaats@naplesnews.com

Landowners faced off Thursday night with state and federal project managers over plans to restore natural water flows across an abandoned subdivision in rural Collier County.

Hollers and heckles erupted frequently from the crowd of 80 or so people at the Collier County Commission chambers for the hearing by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District on the Southern Golden Gate Estates restoration project.

Many of the people in the room wore white Property Rights Action Committee T-shirts with George Washington's face on the back. Others carried homemade protest signs saying "Family Futures," "No Hydrology," and "Naples Tea Party."

Richard Schlinder, second from right, gestures to support his point that a puddle has never formed on land he's owned in Golden Gate Estates for 22 years so he doesn't want to see it flooded. Schlinder addresses Major John Chaput, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, during a Southern Golden Gate Estates restoration workshop on Thursday night at the Collier County Government Complex. Romelio Carta, left, another Estates property owner, waits for his turn to talk to Chaput. Nanciann Regalado, outreach program coordinator for the Corps's Jacksonville district, stands by at right. Lisa Krantz/Staff

Two dozen speakers took a turn at the lectern to make comments that ranged from attacks on the Corps of Engineers to condemnations of the environmental movement as being un-American.

The biggest question was whether the restoration project in Southern Golden Gate Estates would maintain existing levels of flood protection outside the project boundaries particularly in the Estates north of Interstate 75.

"The goal of this project is not to make flooding worse than it is," said John Chaput, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Property Rights Action Committee co-founder Cindy Kemp was among those not reassured.

"My home is near and dear to me," said Kemp, who lives in the Estates north of I-75. "You can't compensate me for what it is."

Not everyone was opposed to the project.

Naples resident Vincent Lucas said growth in Collier County has caused environmental damage that should be fixed.

"This problem was caused by mankind, and it's up to mankind to correct it," he said. "It's not going to correct itself."

In the talking stages since 1985, the restoration covers some 60,000 acres between I-75 and U.S. 41 East that were carved up and sold off decades ago for a huge subdivision called Southern Golden Gate Estates.

A controversial $120-million buyout of property owners, who live around the world, has put more than 90 percent of the area to be restored in state hands. The Florida Division of Forestry manages the property as a state forest.

An original plan called for removing 130 miles of flow-blocking roads, installing 83 canal plugs and building three pump stations to spread water over the land, recharging underground water supplies, replenishing wildlife habitat and repairing downstream estuaries.

Earlier this year, computer models showed the earlier proposal would worsen flooding north of I-75 during heavy rains and prompted consideration of huge pumps to keep water from backing up. The pumps quadrupled the $15-million construction estimate for the project.

More recently, engineers have studied a less mechanical alternative they say would preserve flood protection at current levels north of I-75 but cost less. It would move canal plugs farther south instead of relying on pumps.

The new look has delayed the project. A new project schedule calls for choosing a final design by November and awarding a construction contract by May 2006. Various state and federal approvals and more public hearings are required along the way.

Lobbyists are weighing whether to ask Congress this year for a kind of fast-track approval for Southern Golden Gate Estates restoration money that is part of the larger $8 billion Everglades restoration project.

Such projects usually are authorized only after getting a sign-off from the Corps of Engineers, but a plan under consideration would ask for conditional authorization, leaving the federal agency sign-off for later.

The Estates project could be the first Everglades restoration project to go through the approval process, Chaput said.

"You really have an opportunity to jump-start Everglades restoration," said Mike Bauer, Southwest Florida policy director for Audubon of Florida.

Estates resident Karol Montalto urged planners to take their time to be sure the project doesn't worsen flooding north of I-75.

"I want all the people out here who have the same dreams as me to live out their dreams," she said.

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