Who Will Benefit from the County’s Wetlands Proposal?

When will it end?

This is the question concerned Lee County citizens are asking after the Board of County Commissioners’ May 22nd endorsement of a land use change that would allow commercial and industrial buildings to build in areas that have historically been environmentally protected wetlands.

“What’s so disturbing about this change to the Lee Plan is that it loosens restrictions by increasing development density and intensity in wetlands approved for destruction by the state, including those lands in the very essential DR/GR area,” said Don Eslick, founding member of Lee Future. “Further development of these lands will have extremely negative impacts on our community for several years to come.”

DR/GR stands for Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource, some 80,000 acres of land just east of Estero and Bonita Springs that was established jointly in 1990 by the State of Florida and Lee County with the purpose of protecting the principal water supply for most of Southwest Florida. The Density Reduction refers to how land was to be developed in this precious natural area of wetlands – only one home per 20 acres.

Since 2013, the majority of the five-person Lee County Board of County Commissioners has encouraged more development of the DR/GR.

They allege that development will not harm the groundwater resource value. Developers have successfully lobbied the Board and produced studies conducted by developers’ consultants that support a pro-development position.

Studies done by several independent agencies, including Florida Gulf Coast University, show just the opposite effect. They predict that development in the DR/GR could cause it to lose its ability to effectively hold rainwater, allowing it to percolate down to the aquifers that feed the many well fields there and thereby permanently impacting our water supply.

Adverse impacts will also be felt in wildlife habitats, of which the DR/GR is a principal part. At the plan amendment transmittal hearing, Brad Cornell from Audubon of the Western Everglades cited a 2010 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that, from 1996 to 2010, Lee County lost 38 square miles of wetlands or more than 24,000 acres of wetland loss.

And the loss is continuing.

“The Board’s approval to transmit the wetlands amendment points to a larger issue here,” stated Barbara Manzo of the eYes on Conservation 20/20 Coalition. “Lee County should be consolidating and focusing on in-fill development and redevelopment, not changing the rules in ways that make sprawl more attractive. This change will encourage sprawl while destroying valuable wetlands. This is not smart growth and certainly not the type of growth our fellow residents want.”

Manzo and Eslick aren’t the only ones opposing the changes to the Lee Plan.

Village of Estero Council Member, Katy Errington, urged the County Commissioners to vote against the proposed changes.

“After the red tide, blue-green algae disaster, tinkering with the DR/GR for future land development instead protecting the quantity and quality drinking water is immoral and morass,” said Errington. “Considering the type of environmental devastation we suffered last summer, the BoCC should be taking extraordinary measures in the opposite direction from this current county proposal to protect, preserve, and restore the valuable wetlands we have left. “

The necessity of the Board’s wetlands change has also been questioned by Richard Grosso, Esq., one of the state’s preeminent land use attorneys, who undertook a thorough analysis of the proposal on behalf of Captains for Clean Water, Inc.

In his analysis, Grosso points out that this proposed amendment “would not comply with Florida’s comprehensive planning law.”

“Its passage is not required to avoid a violation of the property rights of owners of land that is currently subject to the current valid restrictions on allowable uses in wetlands,” Grosso stated.

The policy changes supported by the County staff and the Board would approve increased intensity through the expansion of non-residential uses (i.e. industrial and commercial), which are typically more intensive in size. It would also approve impervious square footage and other relevant impacts which would adversely affect the ecological functions of wetlands.

Grosso’s analysis states that comprehensive plans make the basic policy decisions about the type and intensity/density of land uses based on “the big picture” evaluation of all relevant issues.

Approval of this wetlands comprehensive plan change would effectively relinquish the County’s planning responsibility to the State.

In addition, he states, “Comprehensive plans may require that wetland impacts be avoided altogether and that only low-density uses be allowed in or near them”.

The Board chose to transmit the comprehensive plan amendment but, in response to concerns raised by environmental advocates, they directed staff to develop incentives to preserving as many wetlands onsite as possible and to offer those incentives at the time of the adoption hearing.

This issue will be back on the Board of County Commissioners’ agenda in the near future (likely in August) for the final adoption.

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