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June 15,2017 - Protections for rural Alva and North Olga

PATRICIA BORNS , pborns@news-press.com Published 4:22 p.m. ET June 7, 2017 | Updated 9:11 a.m. ET June 8, 2017

As much as Mann might wish, nothing can change the fact that Babcock is a new urbanist development plopped in a back-in-time rural area.

The Babcock plan offers substantial buffers, however, to help absorb the shockwaves:

•    A 1,000-foot green buffer on scenic North River Road south of the property. Only emergency access will be allowed on that road.

•    A 100-foot green buffer on State Road 31, which will form Babcock’s commercial edge.

•    Lighting conditions to protect wildlife.

 •    Keeping the commercial intensity to the west side of the development, with large, residential lots along North River Road to protect the rural corridor.

•    Keeping architectural themes consistent with the North Olga community’s development codes.

The end of the DR/GR

Despite assurances by the developer, Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Senior Environmental Planning Specialist Julianne Thomas voiced concern.

“If people want to have water, we need to protect our recharge areas,” Thomas said. “This creates a precedent for taking things out of the DR/GR. Instead of sticking with its plan, Lee County is changing it with the whims of developers.”

Ever since the county set aside areas of limited density in 1990 to assure its future water supply, developers have pushed to re-designate the land to something else.

Among the examples:

  • 2000 The Airport expansion area changed 2,940 acres from DR/GR to Airport.
  • 2004 The Miromar Lakes expansion changed 29 acres from DR/GR to University Community.
  • 2010 The county took 22 DR/GR acres for public facilities use.
  • 2011 Alico West / Centerplace changed 919.6 acre from DR/GR to University Community.
  • 2011Tradeport in southeast Lee changed 90 DR/GR acres to a custom Tradeport designation.
  • 2015  WildBlue  a gated 1,096 home community with 40,000 square feet of commercial space on on 2,960 DR/GR acres, won permission for a zoning overlay allowing development in exchange for restoring the habitat on the property and donating a park.
  • 2015 Cypress Farms fought for and eventually won the right to develop 1,325 houses on 1,361 DR/GR acres in south Lee using the same mechanisms as Wild Blue.

Babcock is using the precedent of WildBlue and Cypress Farms to offer the same level of habitat restoration they did; but, unlike them, removing its land altogether from the DR/GR.

Why does it matter?

Babcock hired an expert to convince the county it doesn’t matter, in this case.

The basic argument: Babcock’s land in north Lee has a different geology from the southern part of the county. Here, the slope carries the water on the surface into Owl and Trout creeks and on to the river.

If the water runs off instead of seeping down into the aquifer and recharging it, then it’s not appropriate to call it DR/GR land, Babcock planning consultant Alexis Crespo explained.

Thomas and other conservationists disagree.

“There is groundwater on that site,” said Wayne Daltry, a member of the Responsible Growth Management Coalition’s leadership team. “Otherwise, there would be no creeks or streams coming off of the property,.

“Letting the water percolate (soak into the soil with gravity) helps clean it,” Daltry said.  “So, yes, there is groundwater resources and recharge there, and developing it will reduce or remove that function.”

Whoever’s right, water is necessary for the growth the county continues to approve. Looking ahead to 2070, we won’t have enough, according to conservation nonprofit   1,000 Friends of Florida, Thomas says.

Asked why her organization previously appeared to support development in the DR/GR, provided developers improve the surface water flow as Babcock is doing:

“Improving the hydrology is better than not doing it,” she said. “We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

Follow this reporter on Twitter @PatriciaBorns.