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Collier County Planning Commission approves development in panther habitat

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Apr 5, 2021

The endangered Florida Panther, only about 130 of which remain in the wild, would be impacted by a development in their Collier County habitat by a development approved by the Collier County Planning Commission which the Conservancy of Southwest Florida objects to.

Approximately 1,000 acres of land in eastern Collier County which the Conservancy of Southwest Florida has categorized as 100% prime habitat for the endangered Florida panther, was approved for a large-scale housing project by the Collier County Planning Commission Wednesday in a 5-1 vote following an extended public comment process.

Planning commission chair Edwin Fryer was the lone vote against the project. Commission members Paul Shea, Karl Fry, Robert Klucik, Karen Homiak and Joe Schmitt voted for it. The project still needs to be approved by the board of county commissioners.

The development, known as Longwater, is one of two such housing projects proposed by Collier Enterprises in what is known as the county’s Rural Lands Stewardship Area. Another, known as Bellmar, is on a similar-sized property.

The Rural Lands Stewardship Area consists of 182,000 acres of privately held land, much of which is considered to be habitat for the critically endangered Florida panther. Outside of land federally protected in the Everglades, the area is among the largest swaths where the panther reside.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates there are only about 130 adult panthers left in the wild in Florida, making the state’s official animal among the nation’s most endangered species. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida believe the Rural Lands Stewardship Area is home to an additional 18 federal and state listed species.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has sued Collier County over its previous approval of Collier Enterprise’s Rivergrass Village that the Conservancy of Southwest Florida opposed in which 70% of the property in the Rural Lands Stewardship Area is prime panther habitat. The planning commission had actually rejected that project before the board of county commissioners approve it.

Fryer, a retired attorney, said he voted against the latest development over financial impact concerns to the county. He said the developer “erroneously undercounted the number of people that will be residing in that development.”

Fryer said the homes, most of which will be multi-family and single-family attached homes, will bring an economic burden to the county that isn’t properly accounted for.

Fryer said he thinks the environmental concerns “are real” though he said the county’s planning staff do not believe there are environmental issues from the development. “I’m worried about it,” Fryer said. He said the Conservancy of Southwest Florida made a “persuasive argument” about the threat to panthers.

Fryer said the county’s growth management department has “erred in the action it has taken.”

Klucik, who is also an attorney, said he voted for the development because it was in the “least environmentally sensitive important lands” in the Rural Lands Stewardship Area. He said the goal of the Rural Lands Stewardship Area was to steer developments away from the most sensitive sections and cause the “least amount of damage.”

Klucik said he thought it was important to protect the panther population but was just following the county’s own growth management plan.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has called the proposed development illegal, for violating Collier County’s Growth Management Plan and the Rural Lands Stewardship Area’s (RLSA) rules and requirements.

Greg Willette, a spokesman for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the organization was “disappointed by the commission’s vote. “Longwater will result in a $48.4 million deficit to the county roads capital improvements program and will result in a $21.5 million deficit to the Collier County Water and Sewer District.”

Not all conservationists are on the same page. Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate for Florida Audubon, said he supported the development because it sets aside 4,800 acres for permanent conservation and stays away from wetlands.

Most of the property that would be developed is on rural, former agricultural land. The Conservancy believes the land is still important to the panther for hunting and other purposes.

So far this year, 10 panthers have been documented as being killed in Florida, with at least seven due to vehicle crashes – including four in Lee County and three in Collier County.

Cornell said his organization was more concerned about the Bellmar development proposed by Collier Enterprises. “We have serious concerns about how close it is to the panther refuge,” Cornell said.

Most of Florida’s panthers are in the Everglades region, including Collier County as well as Lee County, Glades County and Henry County.

In an action alert issued this week, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida stated “dramatically increased traffic, taxpayer-subsidized development, crowded beaches, and loss of essential Florida Panther habitat are all impacts we will see” due to the development at Longwater and Bellmar.

The organization warned that “important farmlands and essential habitat of the endangered Florida panther will be replaced with large, fiscally irresponsible developments that will create severe traffic congestion issues for Collier County.”

Christian Spilker, CEO of Collier Enterprises, did not return messages seeking comment. Tina Matte, a spokesperson for the company, referred to the company’s website to address issues raised by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s concerns about the panthers.

The Rural Lands Stewardship Area is a plan formed in 2002 on how to handle development for the 182,000 acres. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida says the plan is supposed to limit the amount of development that can take place by shepherding development away from sensitive areas such as wetlands. The Conservancy of Southwest Florida said the plan was initially interpreted as allowing only 10% of the land to be developed but now it is estimated that almost half of the area could be developed based on the way the plan is constituted.