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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 24, 2014 4 years ago

The M word

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Bonita Springs enacted the nuclear option of growth management: a development moratorium. As the recession fades, the familiar development battles pitting anti-growth activists against developers reemerge.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Bonita Springs, the small city in south Lee County that is at the center of the region's future growth, enacted a one-year development moratorium in December on open lands east of Interstate 75. It's the first community on the Gulf Coast since the recession to enact what some see as the nuclear option of growth management.

During the boom years, anti-growth activists, not-in-my-backyard residents and environmentalists effectively promoted moratoria on development to stall new construction. Pressured by these forces, local politicians used this tactic to avoid making the tough decisions to approve new development while appointing task forces and other citizen committees to delay growth.

Now, just as the economic recovery is taking hold, the use of the moratorium is back in political vogue.

Developers on the Gulf Coast are watching the battle in Bonita Springs because the area has become the center of growth in the economic recovery. Hertz is moving its corporate headquarters to nearby Estero and development is heading north from Collier County, where land is becoming scarce. Significant developments are located nearby: three super-regional malls, 14,000-student Florida Gulf Coast University and Southwest Florida International Airport, where a second runway is planned.

Bonita Springs has spent the last several years polishing its pro-business image. But some say that a moratorium shatters that perception, telling companies the city may not be such a welcome place after all.

“What if someone came in and said they wanted to do this amazing thing?” wonders Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson Jr., who voted against the moratorium. “We've precluded that from being considered.”

If Bonita Springs shuts its doors to future growth, other municipalities might also be emboldened to do the same. At the very least, developers and builders should take into account the rejuvenation of vocal anti-growth activists who crowd city hall meetings.

The water issue
It's not clear how the idea of a moratorium emerged, but some have suggested it was sparked by a request by the owner of a rock mine nearing the end of its useful life for the right to develop a residential community on the site. Area residents complained about it, minutes of the December Bonita Springs city council show.

By a vote of 4-3 on Dec. 18, the Bonita Springs city council voted to approve a moratorium on amendments to the existing development plan in that area, claiming that the water supply could be adversely impacted. “It's a sensitive area, our well fields are out there,” says Martha Simons, a councilwoman who voted for the moratorium.

The land in question, about 4,900 acres, is part of an area that has been identified by politicians as environmentally sensitive. With a technocrat-sounding name, the land is part of the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource (better known by its initials, DRGR) that was created more than 25 years ago by Lee County to comply with state requirements to set aside land for water recharge.

But subsequent studies by expert hydrologists show that the area contributes very little recharge to the aquifers that supply the area's drinking water, suggesting political expediency rather than science as the basis for halting growth in that area. For example, a study completed in August for the city by four engineering firms led by Barraco & Associates shows that development in the area in question wouldn't impact Bonita Springs' water supply.

“There's a war against good science,” says Nelson, the city's mayor. “The council put a moratorium on thought.”

Christine Ross, the president and CEO of the Bonita Springs Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees that proper planning should take place on the city's remaining open lands, but says the city council ignored Barraco's report. “We had professionals working for us,” she says. “Why didn't we listen to them?”

Instead, the city appointed a citizen's task force to review the water issue as part of the moratorium. Ross says it's a delay tactic that sends a bad message that a vocal minority crowding city hall chambers can halt development. “We are getting more politically involved,” she promises.

Still, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an influential Naples-based environmental group with its own staff scientists, says a moratorium is justified because there needs to be a comprehensive study of the watershed area, something it says has never been done.

“We need to sit down and combine all the existing information and map out what could go where,” says Nicole Johnson, the Conservancy's director of government regulations who has been appointed to the water task force. “Getting the water right was our mantra.”

Dennis Gilkey, a member of the task force and veteran of residential development in the area, agrees proper planning needs to be done because the area is currently a hodgepodge of pastures, mines and spotty residential development. “I'm positive we can come up with something,” he says. “If the task force doesn't, it'll be every man for himself out there.”

But no one's taking any bets on the outcome of the task force, even those who are following the issue closely. “I'm not sure whether there's clear consensus on what their mission is,” says Russell Schropp, a land-use attorney with Henderson Franklin in Fort Myers who represents the mine. “I wouldn't even want to guess what the outcome would be.”

Stalled deals
For now, growth has effectively been stalled east of I-75 in Bonita Springs.

For example, Bonita Springs Utilities, the nonprofit water provider, was poised to sell 237 acres to a development group managed by Gilkey, the president of consulting firm Gilkey Organization and former president and CEO of Bonita Bay Group. Now, the moratorium has halted that deal. “It's simply the wrong message,” says Fred Partin, the executive director of the utility.

While the land sale won't have a material impact on the utility's operations, Partin says land sales such as this one help the utility pay off debt and refinance at today's lower interest rates.

Partin, whose utility supplies water to the city, says well-planned development would actually improve water quality in the area because surface flows would be more controlled than they are now. “We really feel spot development is terrible,” he says.

As the chief water supplier, Partin knows something about the area's hydrology. “We were adding 125 to 150 new [residential] units during the boom,” says Partin. “We were able to plan, design and construct without a moratorium.”

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