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In the beginning: Creating a town As Ave Maria begins to take shape, questions persist about it’s long-term impact on the environment

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Behind the glittering oratory, manicured lawns and piously titled boulevards at Ave Maria lies a decade-long struggle between developers and conservationists over Collier County’s dwindling open space.

n the beginning: Creating a town

As Ave Maria begins to take shape, questions persist about it’s long-term impact on the environment

By Jeremy Cox

Saturday, August 18, 2007

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” — Genesis 1:26
Photo by Erik Kellar / Daily News

Ave Maria's 100-foot oratory is the heart of the community and university, for now and forever.

Behind the glittering oratory, manicured lawns and piously titled boulevards at Ave Maria lies a decade-long struggle between developers and conservationists over Collier County’s dwindling open space.

It began in 1997, when the state Department of Community Affairs declared that the county’s growth plan left thousands of acres around Immokalee up for grabs for developers. Two years later, then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet ordered the booming county to right its planning ship.

In response, deep-pocketed landowners, including the one that owned the 5,000 acres of farm fields that would become Ave Maria, volunteered to help overhaul the county’s growth plan. Their biggest contribution was hiring the consulting firm that did the legwork for the committee charged with crafting new development regulations.

Today, as students move into their dorms and families settle into new homes in the burgeoning town, questions persist about the way a land forgotten became a paradise found.

Is Ave Maria the answer to Collier’s sprawl woes or will it intensify the problem? And how will a town the size of Naples, in terms of population, coexist with the wilds of the western Everglades?

A controversial plan

For years, the question of whether a new subdivision could be built in eastern Collier was easy to answer: No. An urban boundary centered one mile east of Collier Boulevard protected the area’s citrus groves, pine flatwoods and wetlands from bulldozers.

Then, the development dam broke with the Collier County Commission’s approval of TwinEagles Golf and Country Club on Immokalee Road, three miles east of the urban boundary.

“That was a very bleak time back then,” said Nancy Payton, a field representative with the Florida Wildlife Federation, one of the environmental groups that challenged the TwinEagles decision.

Members of the commission back then included Tim Constantine and John Norris, who were involved in the Stadium Naples public corruption scandal. Both were accused of extorting thousands of dollars in compensation in exchange for votes to benefit the golf course and other real estate projects. Both were forced out of office in 2000.

No allegations of impropriety have ever been lodged in the TwinEagles case, which is unrelated to Stadium Naples.

Elected officials weren’t the only ones getting into trouble. Vince Cautero, Collier’s development czar, resigned that year after a county audit revealed that employees of his department who failed to collect $2.4 million in impact fees from golf courses had gotten free rounds of golf.

State planners seemed to be spoiling for a showdown in 1997, when they objected to a series of proposed amendments to the county’s 1989 growth plan.

The most controversial measure aimed to loosen rules that restricted sewers from being expanded into rural areas, a move critics decried as a recipe for sprawl. DCA officials used the county’s action to launch a larger attack on the growth plan itself.

A final order signed by Bush in June 1999 required the county to devise a plan to protect farm fields and prime wildlife habitat in the so-called “rural fringe” just east of the urban boundary and on nearly 200,000 acres of land surrounding Immokalee. It urged the county to consider, as an alternative to sprawl, creating “urban villages,” “new towns” and “satellite communities.

“It wasn’t, ‘You need to figure out how to stop growth.’ It was, ‘You need to figure out how to plan growth.’”

That’s the essence of what the state’s marching orders were for Collier County, according to Jim Beever, a key state biologist at the time.

“It certainly is a better approach than what Collier County had proposed — which the governor’s office had rejected — which is a continuation of the land uses you see in western Collier County,” he added.

The following year, a coalition of large landowners offered to foot the bill on a $500,000 study that would map the future of their acreage, a plan most county commissioners happily signed off on, citing taxpayer savings. Critics, including Payton, complained that the landowners were operating the study in secret; the planning firm they hired, WilsonMiller, didn’t have to share information with the public because the private company was outside the realm of the state’s open-government laws.

Tom Jones, vice president of government affairs for Barron Collier Cos., said it made sense for his company and other landowners to lead the effort.

“We know more about this area than anyone else, and it seemed for once everyone could get out in front of something. At the time, we didn’t have any development plans. I think the other landowners share the same view: If something’s going to happen here, let’s make sure it’s good for the landowners and good for the environment,” Jones said.

Commissioners appointed a 10-member oversight committee consisting largely of business leaders and community activists with ties to developers.

“People were appointed,” Payton recalled, “but it clearly was people supported by the landowners. Some of them weren’t even residents in the county even though they were deciding the future of the county.”

Payton said the planning effort’s bias toward developers dissipated somewhat after the committee issued its recommendations and a “healing” County Commission was swept into office shortly after the start of the new century. She came to embrace the newly revised growth plan after gaining several concessions from landowners.

In 2002, the Rural Land Stewardship Area was born. The plan creates an elaborate point system that awards credits to landowners for setting aside land for protection, restoring land or keeping it in agricultural production. Developers can buy those credits to build new towns on land that isn’t quite so environmentally sensitive.

Barron Collier Cos. became the first developer to test the new plan. It joined with Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan to propose a new university and town on 5,000 acres to be called Ave Maria.

Photo by Tristan Spinski / Daily News

Construction crews work on homes in July in Ave Maria.

By linking the town with a university, the Barron Collier proposal followed a path blazed by Alico Inc. a decade earlier. The agribusiness giant donated the land beneath what would become Florida Gulf Coast University in southeastern Lee County, triggering an explosion of luxury homes and new roads on adjacent lands it still owned. In both cases, universities paved the way.

“These amenities are often included in a development plan to encourage acceptance,” said Beever, now a senior planner with the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council.

A provision inserted into the growth plan at the behest of one of the landowner group’s attorneys enabled Ave Maria to exceed the 4,000-acre size limit for towns in the stewardship area. “Private post-secondary institutions” were added to a list of types of “public benefits” that wouldn’t be subjected to the criteria.

Under the old growth plan, development on agricultural lands like those that now host Ave Maria was restricted to one home for every five acres. In other words, Ave Maria could have held no more than 1,000 homes. Plans under the revised growth manifesto call for 11,000 homes to be built by 2025 or so.

Photo by Jimmie Presley / Daily News

As Ave Maria continues to develop, environmentalists are maintaining a concerned eye on how far it reaches into protected lands.

The entire stewardship area opened the 21st century with 368 homes.

Green by necessity

On a recent balmy afternoon, Tom Jones emerged from his gray sport utility vehicle at the side of Ave Maria Boulevard, the town’s main drag, to show the greener side of his company, Barron Collier, and the town itself. Immediately, he was swarmed by a cloud of gnats.

Will the gnat problem always be this bad at Ave Maria? a visitor asked him. Jones deflected the question with humor.

“What gnats?” Jones asked playfully. “I don’t see any gnats.”

Such is the prevailing attitude in this ready-made town on the edge of the western Everglades: When it comes to nature, you have to make the best of it.

In order to make the property suitable for development, Barron Collier had to carve about 20 percent of the town into retention ponds and use the salvaged dirt to raise the surrounding land between 3 1/2 and 5 feet.

Ave Maria lies just north of Oil Well Road within a few miles of several environmental jewels that defy taming, including Corkscrew Swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Camp Keais Strand, a cypress-draped water-catcher stretching from Lake Trafford to the panther refuge, flows along the western boundary of the town.

Photo by Jimmie Presley / Daily News

Timoteo Hernandez, and Moises Sanchez, right, work to clear the weeds at Ave Maria for the town's development on July 30.

Standing in front of a sign emblazoned with a picture of a great white heron and the words “Ave Maria Wetlands Restoration Project,” Jones described the evolution of the damp spot. Last March, it was a barren farm field and a Brazilian pepper-infested cypress dome. Now, the cypress is virtually exotic-free, and the field has been scoured into a wetland festooned with freshly planted pickerel and bulrush.

“I think what we’ve created is a much broader feeding and nesting area” for birds, Jones said, adding that such restoration costs about $10,000 an acre.

The project is one of many at Ave Maria aimed at fulfilling a federal mandate to restore 160 acres of wetlands in the town. Once completed, a system of pipes and swales will carry treated runoff from the town’s neighborhoods into the wetlands and, finally, into Camp Keais to the west.

Barron Collier’s environmental obligations don’t end at the town’s boundaries. Under the county’s land stewardship program, the company has stripped the development potential off some 17,000 acres of land it owns, mainly east of Immokalee. Although the threat of new homes and storefronts has been removed, the company can continue to raise cattle and crops on much of that acreage for as long as it wants.

Federal rules also require Barron Collier to restore a 575-acre spit of nature called Catherine Island, south of Oil Well Road. There, workers are spraying foreign vegetation and installing a total of eight pipes beneath two farm roads to revive flows in Camp Keais. The company also is tearing out old farm fields to widen another section of the strand by 600 to 800 feet.

Such efforts weren’t good enough for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, which threatened to sue last February over the destruction of 5,000 acres of panther habitat. Between July 2002 and June 2003, a total of 19 panthers had established ranges near the Ave Maria site, northwest of the intersection of Oil Well and Camp Keais roads, Defenders asserts.

“We don’t think the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) did an adequate job of looking at the cumulative impacts it had,” said the group’s Florida representative, Elizabeth Fleming.

“If you’re having towns with 24,000 people, that’s a huge new town planned for an area with no infrastructure whatsoever. You have to increase the capacity of the roads and put all the things people want out there like gas stations, and Target and Home Depot and Publix. I don’t see that as retaining a rural character,” she added.

Fleming declined to discuss details of the settlement talks until they are finalized.

If a project threatens the survival of an endangered species, Fish and Wildlife can issue what it calls a “jeopardy opinion,” effectively shutting the project down. The agency, however, has never issued such an opinion for the panther.

“A project of this magnitude did raise concerns and did bring about rigorous discussions,” said Paul Souza, head of Fish and Wildlife’s Vero Beach office. “At the end of our analysis, (Ave Maria) did not rise to the level of jeopardy.”

Jones said he hopes some good can come of the lawsuit. He wants the federal government to delineate areas to be set aside for panther paws.

“We certainly didn’t want to do anything that pushes the panther further down the road of extinction it was on at one time,” he said.

The growth plan’s success will be judged by what happens next, said David Guggenheim, who was president of The Conservancy of Southwest Florida when the bureaucratic foundation for Ave Maria was laid.

“Growth can be insidious, happening bit by bit, until one day you stand back and say, ‘Man, how did this happen?’” he said in an e-mail. “That’s the frightening pattern we’re seeing around the country. For Collier County, I’m hopeful (that pattern won’t be repeated), but far from convinced.”

Next year, a new commission-appointed committee is due to evaluate the progress that the 5-year-old rural stewardship area has made and suggest revisions. In the meantime, another large landowner, Collier Enterprises, has come forward with another new town proposal, this one called Big Cypress and planned with more homes (25,000) on more acres (8,000) than Ave Maria.

Ave Maria’s key figures

Tom Monaghan

Age: 70

Home: Ave Maria and Naples.

Title: Founder and chancellor of Ave Maria University

On AMU: "I felt that there was a need for a Catholic school that didn't compromise its faith, and didn't compromise its academics, either. I think we're off to a pretty good start."

Background: Rags-to-riches AMU founder Tom Monaghan transitioned from orphan to multimillionaire after creating Domino’s Pizza, among the first fast food chains to deliver to customers at home. Monaghan traded an ornate lifestyle for a humble, religious living after reading “Mere Christianity,” by C.S. Lewis in 1999.

In 1999, Monaghan created the first Catholic university in more than 40 years, Ave Maria College, in Ypsilanti, Mich. Failing to gain the proper permits to expand in his hometown, Monaghan moved the school — and himself — to Naples, where Ave Maria University will be surrounded by a new town sharing its name and many of its values.

Blake Gable

Age: 36

Home: Naples

Title: Vice president of real estate for Barron Collier Co. and project manager for the Town of Ave Maria

On Ave Maria: “We saw this as an opportunity to change the face of eastern Collier County and something that will be a benefit for the entire region.”

Background: A native Neapolitan with deep roots in Collier County and with county developer Barron Collier Co., Gable has evolved as the point man for all things related to Ave Maria town since taking on the project in early 2003. Gable joined the Barron Collier Co. in 1999. He is a fourth-generation Collier and son of current board chairman Lamar Gable. He is a graduate of Naples High School, Tulane University (La.) and Florida Gulf Coast University’s Master’s in Business Administration program. Prior to joining Barron Collier Co., Gable was a legislative director for U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz.
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In the beginning: Creating a town
As Ave Maria begins to take shape, questions persist about it’s long-term impact on the environment Behind the glittering oratory, manicured lawns and piously titled boulevards at Ave Maria lies a decade-long struggle between developers and conservationists over Collier County’s dwindling open space.