On Tuesday the Collier County Board of Commissioners will consider whether to green-light the Longwater and Bellmar village projects in rural eastern Collier County.
The two 1,000-acre villages proposed by Collier Enterprises are merely the latest projects that have drawn intense controversy in eastern Collier County. The furor is because both projects would be tucked within the Rural Lands Stewardship Area — the 185,000-acre tract of land that the state made a planning overlay in 2002.
It did so in part to preserve eastern Collier County’s largely agriculture character, protect wildlife areas like the nearby Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and allow some controlled development without promoting urban sprawl.
Indeed both the Longwater and Bellmar proposals are being aggressively opposed by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which has taken legal action to stop the construction of the Rivergrass Village development — a third Collier Enterprises project that was approved last year by the county commissioners.
Given all that, it’s difficult to overstate how much is at stake in the commissioners’ decision on the Longwater and Bellmar village projects.
But regardless of whether the board gives the go-ahead to Longwater and Bellmar — or whether you do or don’t support the projects — one thing should be universally accepted:
Tuesday’s decision must be a turning point in fostering better dialogue between eastern Collier County’s developers (who obviously view these village projects as reasonable forms of development within the Rural Lands Stewardship Area) and individual residents and citizen groups like the Conservancy (which contend that while they support responsible growth, ventures like Longwater and Bellmar threaten to aggravate traffic issues, burden taxpayers and badly affect wildlife like the endangered panther).
Clearly such open lines of communication don’t exist between the two sides right now.
Recently several officials of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida — including CEO Rob Moher and top planning specialists Nicole Johnson and April Olson — discussed eastern Collier County’s growth in a session with members of The News-Press’ five-member Southwest Florida Community Advisory Board.
Yes, of course, much of the conversation with the Conservancy leaders centered around their full-throated opposition to the Longwater and Bellmar village projects — and their concern that such development will irretrievably change eastern Collier County in negative ways.
“I believe in fighting for what’s preserving,” Moher told the board members.
Johnson, meanwhile, pointed to Broward County — which has become rife with uncontrolled urban sprawl and traffic congestion — as an ominous harbinger of a future Collier County.
“Collier County is what Broward County was 25, 30 years ago,” Johnson said. “And if you brought over officials from Broward County to Collier County, they’d probably say, ‘Look, guys, don’t make the same mistakes we made.’”
But what was equally striking about the session with the Conservancy officials was how passionately they expressed a desire for a more productive dialogue with the area’s developers and others who support accelerated development in eastern Collier County.
When Olson was asked to identify the one wish she had for addressing the current controversy regarding the Rural Lands Stewardship Area, she offered a quick reply.
“I wish for a big Kumbaya (meeting) between the Conservancy, the land owners and Collier County government,” she said, suggesting that it would be a chance for all parties to listen “with open ears and open minds” about the right path forward for eastern Collier County.
It’s time for those open ears and open minds to come to the fore.
The debate about growth in eastern Collier County won’t end soon. But the tenor of that debate needs to evolve, and Tuesday’s deliberations by the county commission regarding the Longwater and Bellmar projects should mark the start of that process.