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'Has hell frozen?'

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  • | 1:16 a.m. October 22, 2010
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  • Florida
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Collier County's reputation for high taxes, stiff fees and capricious bureaucracy are so anti-growth that many real estate entrepreneurs refuse to do business there.

So imagine the surprise when Collier County Manager Leo Ochs walked into a meeting of the Collier Building Industry Association shortly after he was appointed last fall. Builders who were at the meeting remember being shocked when Ochs asked them to propose changes to the land-development code that would streamline the government-approval process.

Florida Land Development News, a locally published newsletter for the development industry, reported the news with this headline in July: “Has Hell Frozen? Builders and Government Working Together!”

And the Collier County Commission recently approved trimming transportation-related taxes on new construction, often called “impact fees.” Even after the cuts Collier County still has high taxes on new construction, but the move signaled that the commission's virulent anti-growth strain might be abating as the county's unemployment rate spikes beyond 13%.

“Now they're seeing how the effects of no-growth affect every aspect of our community,” says Michael Rosen, senior vice president with Collier Enterprises in Naples. “It's sort of an epiphany for them.”

Rosen chairs the building industry association's developer council, which formed six committees to offer changes to the land-development code. The goal is to streamline the approval process so it doesn't get bogged down in the bureaucratic morass that's been a hallmark of Collier government. Rosen hopes approval times can be cut in half as a result of the proposed changes that will be presented to the county staff within a month.

“They recognize that many of the builders and contractors are out of work and sometimes it's because of a simple code change,” says David Farmer, a development consultant who is chairman of the Urban Land Institute's Southwest Florida chapter and publisher of Florida Land Development News.

Developers and builders attribute the shift in attitude to Ochs' new administration. Collier County Deputy Administrator Nick Casalanguida acknowledges that the poor economy is pushing everyone to think more creatively about ways to diversify the county's economy.

Casalanguida points to one company that recently got permits and site approval to complete a new building in Collier County in 10 months, something that would have been unheard of during the boom. “In the past, you were getting slammed with projects left and right,” Casalanguida says.

But not everyone is persuaded that Collier's new attitude is genuine because they say the county commission is still dominated by anti-growth politicians. And even hopeful executives say it might not be until the next election cycle in 2012 when entrepreneurs get true relief.

Al Zichella, vice president of construction and land development services for consultant KD Merick & Co. and a longtime builder in Naples, says county commissioners reacted coolly when businesses recently asked them to lower transportation fees on new construction.

“They keep sending staff the message that business isn't welcome here,” Zichella says. “They chastise them like children.”

If the county staff doesn't have the politicians' backing, it could be a lot harder to roll out the welcome mat. “They have a lot of work yet to do before anyone would say Collier is a good place to work,” Zichella says.


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