Wednesday, April 8, 2009

RLSA program will actually mean less development

My Guest Editorial debut in the Naples Daily News. Enjoy.

Much has been said and written about Collier County’s Rural Land Stewardship Area (RLSA) program since its inception and then adoption in 2002. There are at least three sides to this issue; the owners of the rural land, the environmental community and the residents of Collier County.

From the landowners perspective the issue is pretty simple; they own the land, they pay taxes on the land and their land has inherent development rights of one home for every five acres they own. The environmental community also has a straightforward point of view, protect endangered species, their habitats and sensitive wetland ecosystems. The residents of Collier County have probably the most nebulous job and that is to decide what is best for our current and future residents for many generations to come.

The RLSA overlay is about 200,000 acres surrounding Immokalee. The landowners have the right to convert their land to 5 acre lots similar to what exists today as Golden Gate Estates. If this form of development was to occur it would mean about 40,000 homes could be built in the rural area. If you look at a typical 5-acre lot with a home in Golden Gate Estates you will notice one acre or more of the lot has been cleared and developed from its natural state. When the local street network necessary to serve these hypothetical 5-acre lots is contemplated, another 9,000 acres would need to be developed. Without the RLSA program, Collier County could have had 49,000 acres of development in the rural area. That is assuming a maximum of one acre would be cleared per lot.

The rural area is rich in ecological diversity and contiguousness. In other words, the RLSA has large connected areas of uplands, wetlands and serves as habitats for many species including endangered species such as the Florida Panther and the Florida Black Bear. Both the panther and bear populations reportedly need large open areas to forage, mate and raise their young. In some areas, the wetland ecosystems are used as habitat by these two species but they also need considerable upland area to survive. The point here is even if you did not allow development in the wetland areas of the RLSA there still would not be enough area for the panther and black bear.

Collier County needs to decide how to balance resident’s future needs, the landowner’s ability to use their land and the needs of the environment in the RLSA. The RLSA 5-Year Review Committee has spent the last eighteen months studying the existing RLSA program and taking testimony from experts of almost every field. One of the committee’s recommendations is a maximum development area of 45,000 acres thereby perpetually preserving over 150,000 acres of rural land. This 150,000 acres will be preserved in its present condition or in a restored condition if there has been significant disturbance. Some believe a 45,000 acre maximum development footprint is too much development especially in a rural area. Some also believe there will be too many people living on those 45,000 acres especially since before only one home was allowed on a 5-acre lot and the RLSA program is forecast to have about 2.5 homes per acre. However, today 43,000 acres of the 200,000 are anticipated to be developed as part of the existing RLSA program. While this existing condition is less than the proposed 45,000 acre cap, it leaves 47,000 acres of land available for development at one home per five acres.

Before the RLSA program existed, a future theoretical build-out of Collier County’s rural area would have resulted in 49,000 acres of developed land. Keep in mind that does not include any development for government type services such as EMS, fire, government administration, schools and administration, hospitals/emergency care and necessary commercial services to serve the residents of the rural area, collectively called Public Benefit Uses. The RLSA as it exists today requires all development participating in the program to provide for most of the above services within their development area. The proposed 45,000 acre development cap proposed by the 5-Year Review Committee is inclusive of Public Benefit uses.

Without taking sides on what is right and what is wrong with the proposed cap let’s take a look at the build-out numbers over the next 50 years. If the RLSA program did not exist there could be about 49,000 acres of sprawling development with little or no preserved agricultural uses or protected habitat areas. With the existing RLSA program there will still be over 40,000 acres of development but this development will be concentrated in distinct towns and villages. The quality of the development within the RLSA will be vastly superior to tens of thousands of scattered five acre lots. The word “superior” in this context means well a thought-out mix of uses with dense populations capable of supporting Public Benefit Uses while minimizing sprawl. What is even more important than what is developed is what will never be developed.
Over 150,000 acres of land contiguous to millions of acres of preserved land will never be developed.
Before you make up your mind about the RLSA program including its benefits and shortcomings, take a hard look at what could have been, what is now and what could be changed for the better. We could have seen 49,000 acres of sprawling development in five acre tracts over a 200,000 acre area with no RLSA program. With no changes to the existing RLSA program there will be about 43,000 acres of development with another 47,000 acres left out of the program and subject to development with one home per five acres. If the RLSA 5-Year Review Committee recommended changes are implemented 45,000 acres may be developed and 150,000 acres will be perpetually preserved as existing agricultural uses, restored habitat areas and native forests.

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