- February 26, 2016
The federal government has shelved a petition by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to designate panther habitat in a large swath of Collier, Lee and Hendry counties, handing landowners there a reprieve for now.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service neither denied nor approved the petition, leaving in limbo a decision that could severely restrict large-scale development on more than 1.1 million acres in the three-county region, an area more than twice the size of Lee County.
Any decision to restrict large-scale development on such a vast area would have a substantial impact on future economic development and job creation, especially in Collier County. The Gulf Coast's southern-most county is already considered one of the most anti-growth areas in the region.
“The potential economic impact of that is unimaginable,” says Tom Jones, vice president of governmental affairs with Barron Collier Companies in Naples, a landowner and developer.
In particular, federal restrictions would render moot any local environmental efforts, such as a rural-land stewardship program and panther protection plan that was agreed to by landowners, most environmentalists and Collier County.
It's not clear why the federal government decided to punt the thorny issue now, but the agency has several panther-related protection projects going on currently and it left the door open to reviewing the petition later. Officials with the agency couldn't be reached.
“I was surprised that they did not make a decision,” says Andrew McElwaine, president and chief executive officer of the Conservancy, an organization that has gained financial support among business executives in Naples. The environmental group's chairman is Dolph Von Arx, retired chairman and chief executive officer of Planters Lifesavers Co. who is active in economic development circles in Collier County.
The decision can be appealed, but McElwaine says he wants to discuss the issue with other environmental groups as well as the federal government before proceeding. With development on hold until the economy recovers, McElwaine says the organization is in no rush to appeal.
Still, Collier Enterprises' Big Cypress residential project in Collier County would be among the first to feel the impact of any federal restrictions on building where panthers roam.
In an email, Christian Spilker, vice president of environmental policy and permitting for Collier Enterprises, wrote: “We are glad to see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has acknowledged the value of the cooperative effort of the Florida Panther Protection Program and the importance of relying on sound science to guide their decisions. We also appreciate that the Service is taking into consideration the property rights of the more than 60,000 landowners over five counties whose land would be impacted by designation of critical habitat.”