Commissioners to take final look at rural fringe growth plan

Sunday, June 16, 2002

By ERIC STAATS, emstaats@naplesnews.com

Collier County commissioners are on the verge of adopting the most significant changes to the county's growth plan since it was created in 1985.

Landowners opposed to the changes are expected to pack a meeting room Tuesday to protest the so-called rural fringe plan that would apply to some 93,000 acres between the urban area and Golden Gate Estates. The meeting starts at 5 p.m.

The backbone of the new plan is a Transfer of Development Rights program that would discourage development on thousands of acres in the name of environmental protection. Landowners in those areas would be able to sell their lost development rights. Buyers would be able to buy the rights to develop other areas identified for growth. Opponents say the TDR program will not protect their private property rights.

AT A GLANCE

Collier County commissioners are set to cast final votes on the rural fringe growth plan at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the boardroom on the third floor of the Administration Building at the county government center near the intersection of Airport-Pulling Road and U.S. 41 East.

The plan has been in the works since 1999, when Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet ordered a virtual stop to growth in the county's rural area until the county came up with better environmental protections. The order set a June 22 deadline.

Another plan, also stemming from the state order, for almost 200,000 acres around Immokalee also is in the works. Commissioners voted last week to transmit that plan to the state Department of Community Affairs for review. A final vote is set for October.

The rural fringe plan already has undergone DCA review and is back to commissioners for final adoption. Commissioners said last week they support the new plan.

"I think it's good for the community as a whole," said Commissioner Tom Henning.

That's not to say it won't make people angry, said Commission Chairman Jim Coletta.

"I've never in my life seen a perfect piece of legislation come down from any form of government," said Coletta, whose district includes the rural fringe area.

He said the key to the plan is to make sure the TDR program works, and that might take some help from taxpayers, he said.

Coletta proposed borrowing $5 million to buy development credits in the TDR program at $25,000 each. The county then would sell the rights and any profit could go toward buying land for a regional medical center to serve rural parts of the county, Coletta said.

"We're telling these people the TDR program is going to work, we should be putting our money where out mouth is," Coletta said.

Commissioner Fred Coyle agreed that the success of the TDR program is the key to the plan. He said he doesn't think the county ought to put up money to jump-start the program.

Earlier this year, he suggested dipping into a development fee reserve fund to buy development credits but dropped the idea amid concerns that it would be an illegal use of those funds.

Coyle said he's not opposed to finding federal or state grant money to buy development rights.

"We really do have to find a way to compensate property owners," Coyle said. "We've got to make that TDR program work."

The TDR program would split the rural fringe into receiving areas, where development would be encouraged, and sending areas, where development would be restricted.

Landowners in sending areas would be able to build one house on every 40 acres or one house on parcels smaller than 40 acres that were created before June 22, 1999. That compares to one house per five acres they could build before the 1999 order.

The TDR program would convert the lost homes into development credits that owners could sell to a developer who could use them to build more homes than otherwise allowed in receiving areas or in the urban area.

Landowners in sending areas still would be able to use their land for agriculture but would not be able to increase the size or intensity of those operations after selling their development rights.

County officials view the TDR program as a way for property owners to recoup their lost rights, but property owners don't like the idea of giving up development rights in the first place. Beyond that, they say they don't trust that the program will pay them enough.

"It's just an atrocity as far as I'm concerned," said Lynda Hittinger, vice president of the Property Rights Action Committee and a Golden Gate Estates resident.

She calls the plan un-American and unfair and accuses environmental groups of using it to orchestrate a land grab. County commissioners are too willing to go along, she said.

"They're not following the wishes of their constituents, which I don't understand," she said. "They're supposed to be representing us."

If commissioners approve the plan, Hittinger said, she expects that the county would wind up in court defending lawsuits from property owners.

Talk of the TDR program is almost always followed closely by talk of another proposed program called a Regional Offsite Mitigation Area, or ROMA.

The Collier Soil and Water Conservation District is petitioning the state Department of Environmental Protection to set up the ROMA on 7,000 acres of Golden Gate Estates between Interstate 75 and 10th Avenue Southeast.

The ROMA would act as a mitigation bank where landowners could buy land for preservation from willing sellers to meet state requirements associated with destroying wetlands in the Estates.

The ROMA has nothing to do with the rural fringe plan, and commissioners said they want to clear up any misunderstanding about that Tuesday.

While property owners chafe at the rural fringe plan, a group that led the way toward its creation is mostly satisfied with it.

"There are no significant hot buttons out there for us," said Nancy Payton, field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

The Federation and the Collier Audubon Society backed an administrative challenge of the county's growth plan by the DCA that resulted in the 1999 order from the governor and Cabinet.

The two groups have been talking as recently as last week with large landowners to resolve differences over the plan.

In one case, the groups struck a deal with a landowner in North Belle Meade on where to draw the line between receiving areas and sending areas in that area north of Interstate 75.

Other property owners left out of the talks objected to being put into a sending area. Since then, the groups have reached a deal to move a section of land into a neutral area. That would preserve the number of homes they could build but would require more strict open space preservation rules.

In a second case, the groups have worked with the owner of property along the urban boundary line south of Interstate 75 on rules that allow him to take units he could build in the urban area and put them instead in areas set aside for protection.

The plan up for approval Tuesday does not go far enough in some areas for environmental advocates.

Payton said she intends to push for a ban on sewer lines and pump stations in areas designated for protection.

The county's Environmental Advisory Council has pushed for a ban on golf courses in so-called greenbelts required around new development in receiving areas.

Much of Tuesday's focus will be on objections raised by regulators at the DCA, which has the power to challenge the rural fringe plan in front of an administrative law judge. It was such a challenge that resulted in the 1999 state order in the first place.

Commissioners said they want to be sure the plan adheres to the DCA suggestions even if that means leaving opponents unhappy.

"I'm not in the mood to go in and rewrite on a wholesale basis this particular program," Coyle said.

Coletta said he would rather reject the plan than try to make big changes to it Tuesday something that could put the county at risk of not making the June 22 deadline.

Not meeting the deadline is not an option, said Stan Litsinger, the county's long-range planning manager.

"We're essentially at the bewitching hour, if you will, on this thing," he said.

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