Plans for town of Big Cypress move forward, but smaller
By Liam Dillon , Eric Staats
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Maybe they’ll change the name to not-as-Big Cypress.
Collier Enterprises unveiled plans in 2006 to build 25,000 homes in a town and scattering of smaller villages on 8,000 acres of farmland surrounded by some 14,000 acres of preserve stretching from Immokalee Road to Interstate 75 east of Golden Gate Estates.
But in the document filed with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, the company is asking to build 9,000 homes in a 3,600-acre town, less than half the original size and 36 percent of the original homes. The document is a precursor to a Development of Regional Impact application to be filed later this year, company officials said Tuesday.
The development is planned around a town center encircled by a realignment of Oil Well Road and an extension of Randall Boulevard and drops — at least for now — proposals to build the villages and hamlets farther north and south on Collier holdings.
“This we think is the most logical place to begin Big Cypress,’’ Collier Enterprises CEO Tom Flood said Tuesday.
The company anticipates breaking ground in late 2010 and reaching build-out of its current plans in 2023.
Besides DRI approval, the project also needs approvals from Collier County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District.
Flood said it makes more sense for the company to move forward with a piece of what eventually could be more development rather than trying to get permits for the entire 22,000-acre Big Cypress Stewardship District — about twice the size of the city of Naples — all at once.
Current real estate market conditions didn’t figure in the decision, he said.
“We liked Southwest Florida before, and we still like Southwest Florida,’’ Flood said.
In a nod to environmental concerns, he said the company also wants to take more time to study how endangered Florida panthers use parts of the Collier holdings before deciding whether to propose more development there.
“We want to create a design here that will be compatible with the Florida panther,’’ Flood said.
Environmental groups had warned Collier Enterprises about encroaching into panther habitat in the southern portion of the stewardship district nearest the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
“They listened and they responded appropriately,’’ Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said.
Collier County Audubon Society policy advocate Brad Cornell called the company’s new plans a “pretty breathtaking change.’’
Cornell said he would continue to evaluate the project and whether it fits the rural landscape in Collier County.
In an e-mail, Conservancy of Southwest Florida President Andrew McElwaine wrote that he has asked the group’s science department to analyze the environmental effects of the new proposal.
He wrote that he liked the idea of building the town center between Oil Well Road and Randall Boulevard but questioned the rest of the proposal’s effect on wetlands and panther habitat.
“Nevertheless it seems some progress has been made,’’ he wrote in the e-mail.
Within the 3,600-acre DRI proposal, 850 acres are wetlands or preserve. Development would occur mostly on cleared farmland. The project would affect 180 acres of wetlands, according to company figures.
Beyond the DRI boundaries, the company wants to set aside 7,000 acres along a 10-mile strip of the western edge of the Camp Keais Strand that runs south from Lake Trafford. The company would preserve another 3,000 acres of wetlands in the Okaloacoochee Slough east of Immokalee.
The need for environmental conservation to go along with development stems from a landmark 2002 growth plan that requires land preservation and restoration to earn development credits in the eastern part of the county.
Ave Maria University and its companion town, which also took advantage of the plan, sits on 5,000 acres northeast of the proposed Big Cypress site.
But Big Cypress developers said the biggest impact of the new town should be felt in Golden Gate Estates, its neighbor directly west.
Flood hoped the town, which is proposed to include 830,000 square feet for commercial space, 500,000 square feet for light industrial, 860,000 square feet for offices, a golf course, a 500-room hotel, a 200-bed hospital, civic buildings and parks, will be a destination point for the county’s eastern residents.
Big Cypress General Manager Michael Rosen even hinted at higher education “on the horizon” in the town.
They have carved out a site for county emergency medical services, police and fire protection in addition to three school sites. A small company to run the development’s utilities is also planned.
Tim Nance, president of the Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association, which has yet to see the revised plans, said the organization would welcome a Big Cypress downtown.
“People are looking forward to some commercial development out there,” he said. “It’s nice when you can use roads both ways, instead of one direction in the morning and the other coming home at night.”
Nance also expressed support for moving a proposed Interstate 75 interchange from Everglades Boulevard east to Collier Enterprises-owned lands. Flood said the company is working with the county to determine the feasibility of moving the proposed interchange.
Connie Deane, a spokeswoman for Collier County’s transportation division, said the county is set to begin planning for a new interchange. She called the approval of the interchange “the No. 1 priority in the county’s long-range plan” in the coming fiscal year.
Deane said the department believes it would be easier to have the interchange at Everglades Boulevard because of existing infrastructure, but it’s “way too early to start making preferences” for the location.
As far as the look of the town, Flood gave few specifics other than to use the same language that Ave Maria’s developers used: walkable, compact and sustainable. An architectural theme and home designers haven’t been determined, but Flood expressed an interest in maintaining some of the current rural character.
“The trick is how to manage the density,” he said.