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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 3, 2015 5 years ago

Green space

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A developer has a bold plan for an environmentally friendly residential community in Southeast Lee County. The project could become a model for the future.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Executive Summary
Project. WildBlue Industry. Real estate development Key. Working with environmentalists on the planning of a residential development paves the way for success.

Don Schrotenboer is a pioneer.

The residential development called WildBlue he's spearheading east of Interstate 75 in Lee County could become the blueprint for future development in areas set aside for conservation.

This is important for the economic future of the region because it will open up areas east of I-75 for growth in a way that improves environmental conditions. Fact is, lands east of I-75 in Southeast Lee County aren't pristine: they include limestone mining operations, cattle pastures and even potato farms. Many waterways are choked with invasive plant species.

Now, Schrotenboer and his development company, Private Equity Group of Fort Myers, seek to restore a 2,960-acre tract east of Ben Hill Griffin Parkway to its former environmental beauty. The company is spending $7.4 million to restore and maintain waterways and wildlife corridors in that area.

Schrotenboer worked closely with environmentalists from the beginning to include their vision for the area. He has documented at least 30 meetings with organizations such as the Florida Wildlife Federation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Audubon Florida and state environmental agencies.

“It is the gold standard, and we've referenced it a number of times,” says Nancy Payton, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation in Naples, who was involved in discussions. “I think it's a statewide model.”

The engineers who developed the plan for WildBlue say the developer is doing more to restore the environment in that area than the government has ever done. “In 20 years, we've yet to restore anything,” says Kirk Martin, principal scientist at Water Science Associates in Fort Myers.

For example, using sophisticated hydrological engineering, the company's environmental consultants have developed a stair-step system that will help restore the water flows in the area, including the Stewart Cypress Slough.

“It's a way to meet and exceed [environmental] goals at no cost to taxpayers,” says Kenneth Passarella, president of Passarella & Associates, consulting ecologists in Fort Myers.
Homebuyer demand is strong for environmentally pristine communities like WildBlue, and few new communities have been developed in recent years. Most lots at WildBlue will have water and conservation views, which command higher premiums than other kinds of lots. Schrotenboer says he's penciled $500,000 for homes at WildBlue, but that may be a conservative number.

With the recession fading, Schrotenboer says lenders have been eager to help the developer finance construction of infrastructure such as roads and utilities using community development district bonds it plans to sell to the public. Despite low interest rates, investors have been clamoring for such bonds, which Schrotenboer estimates could pay 5%. “It's very competitive right now,” he says.

Rock mine to lakefront
The nearly 3,000-acre parcel bound on the north by Alico Road and on the south by Corkscrew Road was once a mining site. In fact, the three lakes on the property are the result of its history as a mine for valuable limestone rock for 35 years, the key ingredient for road building.

The previous owner, citrus giant Alico, had a contract to sell it to Orlando-based developer Bobby Ginn during the residential real estate boom, but the deal collapsed during the bust.
Ginn had received approval for 332 homes on septic tanks and wells and a 27-hole golf course, but it was a plan environmentalists didn't endorse. “Fortunately that didn't go forward,” Payton says.

After acquiring the land as part of a $10 million deal for 5,300 acres from Alico, Private Equity Group approached environmental groups about increasing the density to 1,100 homes. To do that, it offered to build only on 754 of the nearly 3,000 acres, scrap the golf course and spend $7.4 million to restore the remaining land's waterways and wildlife corridors.

“Almost every lot will have a water view,” says Schrotenboer. “We're now able to sell a home with water and preserve.”

Private Equity Group will sell lots to builders to develop.

Tying the development into existing Fort Myers utilities such as water and sewer is another benefit because the homes won't have to draw their own water. “We're removing 332 straws from the aquifer,” says Schrotenboer.

Payton says she doesn't view WildBlue as a residential development. “We see it as a restoration project,” she says.

One of the most creative aspects of the project is the construction of a 150-foot-wide water flow-way that will help the water flow from the lakes through the property, preventing larger animals such as panthers and bears from crossing into the neighborhoods and acting as a firebreak in case of wildfires. Brazilian pepper, melaleuca and other exotic plant species currently choke the natural flows of water into the Estero Bay Watershed.

“My staff spent months out there,” says Passarella, even working nights surveying the area for signs of the endangered but elusive Florida bonneted bat (there weren't any there).

The area will also serve as a corridor for animals making their way north and south through a 3-mile-long corridor of conservation land to nearby public lands like the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. WildBlue will include an underground crossing for wildlife at Corkscrew Road.

Private Equity Group, formed by real estate entrepreneur OJ Buigas 30 years ago, borrowed a page from developer Bonita Bay Group's playbook that encouraged open discussion with environmentalists early in the planning process. “This feels like the old Bonita Bay days,” says Martin.

The Bonita Bay Group was active during the 1990s and 2000s and created luxury communities that won over environmental organizations. Previously, developers and environmentalists often were at odds, with projects being delayed and often challenged in court or administrative proceedings with state agencies.

As a result, WildBlue has had no significant opposition to the project. That includes county and state government officials, which have approved the plans. Construction could begin next year with the first homes built in early 2017, Schrotenboer says.

A model for the future
The significance of WildBlue for Lee County's future growth can't be understated. That's because it opens the door to an area where few developers have dared to tread.

Despite scant scientific evidence, Lee County arbitrarily set aside roughly 83,000 acres in the southeast part of the county in the 1980s to comply with state planning requirements. WildBlue is on the western edge of that area.

That move by Lee County more than 30 years ago was politically expedient. At the time, the area was remote from the population of Fort Myers and Bonita Springs was just a small fishing village.

Politicians even gave it a name only bureaucrats could love: the Density Reduction Groundwater Recharge area, now better known by its initials.

But the fact is that mining and agriculture have been permitted uses in the DRGR for decades, and they've never affected Lee County's drinking-water supply. Scientific studies commissioned by the county show that drinking water supplies would not be harmed by development there, though that misperception is widespread.

Setting so much land aside has also deprived the government of much-needed tax revenues. Indeed, the project could generate annual tax revenue of nearly $10 million. “Last year I paid $57,000 in taxes on this property,” Schrotenboer says.

However, few people would dispute that exotic plants have affected groundwater flows and that the area is a corridor for wildlife, which is the reason Private Equity Group is spending the money for environmental restoration. “If it works, why not apply it to the whole 83,000 acres?” Schrotenboer says.

Payton goes further: She has held WildBlue as a model for other areas of the state such as a development in Northeast Florida that's facing some of the same issues. “Density doesn't scare the federation; it's how the density is put on the land,” she says. “We're not going to hold back that wave of growth, so we have to be creative about how we funnel it.”

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