Paving Paradise: Lee County’s Wetland Development Program

The Lee County Commissioners have proposed an amendment to the County’s land use plan that will allow commercial and industrial development in areas that were once environmentally-protected wetlands. As protectors of our local wildlife and strong believers in environmental conservation and sustainable development, Lee Future is fighting against proposals such as these. Below, Florida Weekly Columnist Roger Williams sheds light on the situation and the grim consequences we could face at the hands of the Commissioners’ decision.

Originally Published in Florida Weekly
Written by Roger Williams

Grinning and glad-handing from one building industry association party to the next, four of five Lee County commissioners have created a blueprint of what not to do in a coastal county of 1,212 square miles.

Lee faces a future of increased flooding, toxic water, more people and failing infrastructure, at least in the bipartisan consensus of most observers.

The county includes about 785 square miles of dry or not-so-dry land — that’s just over half-a-million land acres, significant portions of it now covered in sprawling communities.

But as Lee’s population approaches 750,000, paving paradise continues in a bull-economy frenzy. County commissioners are largely the reason.

With one exception, Frank Mann, commissioners consistently ignored the impending consequences of a warming climate and many more people to aggressively promote development. And now more than ever.

Who are they? Brian Hamman, John Manning, Cecil Pendergrass and the late Larry Kiker, who died in April, leaving an open commission seat either the governor or the 2020 election will fill.

Earlier this year, those commissioners proposed a giant leap backward for Lee County.

They asked the state Department of Economic Opportunity, established by former Gov. Rick Scott, to let them amend the county’s comprehensive development plan that protects wetlands by opening wetlands to industrial and commercial development.

When a daily newspaper reported this fact recently, Commissioner Hamman used social media to exercise a tidy Trumpism: “I think this story is a complete fraud,” he wrote, complaining that it was written “with a slant,” and that it used a picture of wetlands not specifically targeted for development to suggest commissioners favored 7-Eleven stores built in sloughs. Exactly.

And when commissioners also moved to allow lime rock mining in or near wetlands flanking Estero, huge protests resulted. Commissioner Pendergrass responded on Fox 92.5 radio by describing “all the great projects in Lee County and calling out all the fake news by a few rhinos (sic) about mining,” he announced in a social media post.

“Lee County is not deregulating mining,” he added.

No, only permitting it where mining could affect water supply, water quality, wildlife and people.

A public mining adoption hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, June 19, in the commission chambers at 2120 Main St., in downtown Fort Myers.

The commissioners’ wetland development plan, meanwhile, works like this. The county has a comprehensive land use plan approved by the state. Wetlands are identified in that plan and on the future land use map, since they’re key to our survival. The state allows property owners to destroy those wetlands in many places, but only after inspecting them, determining where development would have the least impact (on uplands), and only if owners agree to mitigate offsite.

It’s the county’s job — not the state’s — to decide density or use on such wetlands.

Since the Lee plan greatly restricts residential development to one house or dwelling per 20 acres on crucial wetlands — or one house per 10 acres on some uplands — residential development could be unappealing there, suggests Richard Grosso, a widely known land use and environmental law attorney and professor at the Shepard Broad College of Law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

“The amendment, however, would allow the non-residential use on impacted wetlands at the same intensity as that which is permitted on adjacent uplands,” he writes.

There’s the devil in the details.

You would not be bound by current wetland rules as a property owner if you destroy your wetland for commercial or industrial use because, A: the state says you can; and B: your county commissioners surrendered their responsibility to determine use to the state, giving you the automatic right to use your land in any way an adjacent upland can be used — agricultural, commercial or industrial.

So, if an owner off Corkscrew Road decides to develop 40 acres of key wetlands on the wetland map — a place that could accommodate only two houses, by comprehensive plan rules — and his property lies adjacent to a big shopping mall or land zoned for such use, he can let somebody slap down another shopping mall.

“There is no basis,” writes Mr. Grosso, “to allow greater intensity of use on wetlands (for commercial or industrial development) than is allowed for those on residential land … In fact, non-residential uses are typically much more intensive in size, impervious square footage and other relevant impacts.”

Hired by the nonprofit Captains for Clean Water to give the commissioners’ proposal a good look, Mr. Grosso adds this, in a May 20 email delivered to all commissioners: “As far as we can tell, there is no analysis whatsoever in support of the proposed amendment other than a reference to an ‘historic practice.’”

So they don’t have any data, these commissioners. They just want to develop wetlands.

Furthermore, “it violates the law to adopt or amend the Future Land Use Map to authorize development that the (Comprehensive) Plan’s goals, objectives and policies are meant to prohibit.”

That’s not Commissioner Hamman’s view.

“This policy decision dealt with property the state has permitted property owners to impact,” he told a News-Press reporter while criticizing the paper’s coverage as fraudulent. “It had nothing to do with protected preserves or wetlands that have been historically protected.”

Horsepucky.

It’s now time for these commissioners to man up (they’re all aging males) — to protect our dwindling resources whether they’ve been “historically protected,” or not.

In Florida, the 2000 population was 15.3 million, the 2010 population was 18.7 million and the current population is roughly 21.3 million, U.S. Census figures show.

In Lee, the 620,000 residents of 2010 will become 1 million residents 20 years from now, demographers say.

At the very least, we can no longer develop any wetlands. Paving paradise should be over.


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