A seven-mile stretch of roadway in northern Collier County provides a dizzying real-time snapshot of the region’s remarkable growth as it pushes from urbanized North Naples into rural Golden Gate Estates. The path to the future of the region might lie along Immokalee Road.
With developable land quickly diminishing along the coast and west of Interstate 75, more and more residential and commercial projects are pushing eastward toward Florida’s rustic interior. The extraordinary growth can best be seen along Immokalee Road in North Naples, as it both leads and follows the population pushing into the Estates, a vast area mostly defined by 5-acre rural lots. Their grid of numbered streets is cut off by canals and bracketed by Naples’s sprawl along the Gulf and the cypress swampland abutting the Florida Everglades.
One of the best examples of the region’s growth and development can be witnessed on the stretch of Immokalee Road east of Collier Boulevard, which long-timers still call 951, its designation before the north-south County Road 951 was given a proper name years ago. The intersection of Immokalee Road and Collier Boulevard has become ground zero for growth, forecasted to eventually rival and replace Collier’s top traffic hotspot of Airport-Pulling and Pine Ridge roads.
THEN AND NOW
Collier County Tax Collector Rob Stoneburner, whose family relocated from Michigan to Naples in 1973, recalls when the land in that area was undisturbed. Any development out that way then was due to rock mining or citrus production. The Quarry gated community along the north side of Immokalee Road was even named for an actual quarry.
“There was just a rock pit there for many years. Look at it now,” says Stoneburner, who also recalls a pasture near where Heritage Bay residential community is today being used as a practice field for military parachute drops in the early ’90s. “It was a long period of time before you saw any changes, and now it has just taken off.”
Until the first phase of Cameron Commons retail center was built at Heritage Bay in 2015 on the northeast corner of Immokalee Road and what would be the Collier Boulevard extension, only the intersection’s southwest quadrant was fully developed with the Publix-anchored Shoppes at Pebblebrooke and the adjacent Pebblebrooke Center. A lone CVS pharmacy stood sentinel on the northeast corner for about six years, while the wholesale trees and shrubs of Pelican Nursery were the only visible growth on the southeast corner’s more than 50 acres. Clearing began last year for Founders Square mixed-use development, which replaced the landscaping nursery. Already under construction at Founders Square are 400 luxury apartment units, The Pointe restaurant hub, a Physicians Regional Medical Center and a large self-storage facility. Vertical construction has yet to start on a proposed 7-Eleven convenience store and gas station, as well as retail opportunities on more than 10 other acres there.
On the northwest corner, construction began this year on a Chick-fil-A drive-thru and an Aldi grocery store in front of Addison Place luxury apartments, which broke ground three years ago. Another retail strip, medical offices and an apartment complex are planned next to them along the west side of Collier Boulevard. Habitat for Humanity plans a community on 18 acres north of that, and Collier County recently started construction on a government center across the street. The satellite offices are just north of the NCH Northeast emergency room and medical center that opened five years ago.
It was only about 12 years ago that Immokalee Road east of Collier Boulevard was widened from two to six lanes. Before then, residents shared horror stories of being bounced off the narrow road from processions of dump trucks driving in from rock pits during previous building booms. “At nighttime, it was scary. It was spooky,” re-counts Stoneburner.
Traveling east from 951, nearly all the new developments will be on the south side of Immokalee Road. The north side is already filled with residential communities, such as the 1,115-acre TwinEagles, one of the largest in the county, with two championship golf courses.
Currently, Immokalee Road also is the only direct east-west connection to the fast-growing town of Ave Maria and a proposed new town or a series of villages between there and the Estates.
Some Estates residents who moved east because they wanted to enjoy a more rural life without homeowners’ association rules fight the eastward march of so-called progress. They don’t want to see businesses or more people for that matter, pop up near them. On the other hand, others ended up there because that’s all they could find or afford. Most of these folks want the convenience of stores, restaurants and other amenities near them. Nearly all can agree, though, about the growing traffic situation in the area. Even those who want the convenience of amenities weigh that against the addition of more cars on the road. Because most of the residents in the Estates are year-round, the traffic snarls also are constant, especially during the morning and afternoon drive-times as residents travel to and from work.
“I call it the Talladega 500 in the morning; three lanes wide and 60 miles per hour. I’m in it every day,” says Bill McDaniel, a 40-year resident who is serving his second term as the county commissioner representing that area.
Even in his official capacity, McDaniel can’t provide any assurance that traffic jams will be alleviated soon, if ever. “It’s not going to get any better for the foreseeable future. It’s not,” he says.
Collier Metropolitan Planning Organization already designates Immokalee Road, which sees some 35,000 car trips a day, as a “high crash corridor.” To help the traffic strain, one of the keys to success is finally extending a parallel route that has been planned but not implemented for many years, McDaniel said. “My goal is to push Vanderbilt Beach [Road] through all the way to Everglades Boulevard,” he says, claiming that the road extension will start construction this year and be completed in 2022.
Ironically, a lack of a municipal sewer and water system has prevented growth from ramping up even more east of 951. Most residents in the Estates rely on wells and septic systems. Plans for a new county water treatment plant near the Collier County fairgrounds in the Estates will serve the growing community.
“The reality is growth is inevitable. The population of the human race on the planet is exploding exponentially. Like it, don’t like it. That’s the way it’s going,” says McDaniel. “We live in paradise. People are going to want to come here.”
More development coming to Immokalee Road
NAPLES CLASSICAL ACADEMY
Ground was broken Jan. 29 for a tuition-free charter school on 17 acres formerly owned by Fogg Nursery & Mulch Supply across from Heritage Bay Golf & Country Club. The new school is expected to open this fall with 800 students in kindergarten through 10th grade. Additional high school grades and a football field will eventually be added.
Pulte Homes broke ground at the end of December on a 74-unit single-family residential community proposed for nearly 38 acres about 2 miles east of Collier Boulevard. The subdivision is under construction on a narrow strip of land east of Fogg Nursery and across Immokalee Road from Heritage Bay Golf & Country Club. The first one- and two-story houses in the new community are expected to be completed this summer and start in the low $400,000s.
COLLIER COUNTY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
In 2018, the school district cleared 22 acres on the southeast corner of Immokalee Road and Moulder Drive for a future school. At this point, the school district does not expect to build there in the next five years, but the property remains a future growth option.
Florida developer GL Homes is busy building its 55-plus community across from TwinEagles. One-story luxury homes in the gated community will start from the $400,000s. The first phase of nearly 300 single-family homes and an amenity center are being built more than 3 miles east of Collier Boulevard. Resort-style amenities will include a 42,000-square-foot clubhouse, a more than 10-acre recreation site and miles of lushly landscaped walking trails winding throughout the community. The eventual 563-acre community with more than 850 homes will stretch south to the Vanderbilt Beach Road extension and be one of the largest in Collier County.
NORTH COLLIER SQUARE
Immokalee Square LLC is seeking rezoning approval in April for 24.5 acres on the southwest corner of Immokalee Road and Catawba Street, about 1.5 miles west of Wilson Boulevard. The local company plans to build 42 townhomes, 87 condominiums, 12,000 square feet of daycare and more than 44,000 square feet of commercial space on the vacant L-shaped property.
Seeing the need for another Catholic church in the fast-growing region, the Diocese of Venice purchased 41 acres on the southwest corner of Immokalee Road and Wilson Boulevard in 2015. The pandemic delayed the full launch of a capital campaign originally envisioned for 2020. Before the pandemic, the St. Agnes parish also hosted Mass at the nearby Palmetto Ridge High School during season.
RANDALL CURVE MPUD
A mixed-use planned unit development with 400 multi-family housing units and 150,000 square feet of commercial/retail/office space has been proposed on more than 45 acres just north of Randall Boulevard on the northwest corner of Fourth Street Northeast and Immokalee Road after its first turn north. In September 2019, Collier commissioners agreed to sell the county-owned property to Crown Management Services for $3.75 million.
Barron Collier Companies plans a 200,000-square-foot commercial planned unit development on more than 15 acres of forested land on the western side of Immokalee Road at the signalized intersection where it meets Orange Tree Boulevard. The project will interconnect with the neighboring Randall Curve project.
OVERPASS PLANS TACKLE TRAFFIC
An overpass at Immokalee Road and Collier Boulevard has been a long-term planning project for Collier County, said Transportation Planning Manager Trinity Scott. The county has set aside the rights-of-way necessary at the intersection for the overpass, which calls for Immokalee Road to “fly over” Collier Boulevard, but don’t expect to see an elevated roadway aiding traffic flow there anytime soon.
“This overpass is identified as a need in the 2045 Collier Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Long Range Transportation Plan; however, a timeframe for final design and construction is not identified at this time,” says Connie Deane, community liaison for the county’s Growth Management Department.
Meanwhile, locals may not recognize the junction of Immokalee Road and Randall Boulevard in a few years. Collier County and the Florida Department of Transportation have big changes proposed at that intersection in an attempt to keep up with growth.
The Collier Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) expects traffic to increase by 164% on Immokalee Road and by 67% on Randall Boulevard by 2045.
FDOT believes the project—set to begin in late 2023 and finish in late 2024—will improve overall traffic operations; ease access between Interstate 75 and planned housing and commercial developments in eastern Collier County; and reduce accidents and back-ups during peak traffic times. If approved and undertaken, the intersection improvements could occur in two phases: Interim (at-grade) and Ultimate (flyover).
The at-grade improvements with 15 acres of additional right-of-way include widening Randall from two undivided lanes to four divided lanes on a six-lane footprint for possible future widening, and an at-grade intersection with three left-turn-only lanes from westbound Randall to westbound Immokalee Road. Engineers would also build a continuous-flow right turn from eastbound Immokalee Road to eastbound Randall.
The Ultimate plan with 17 acres of additional right-of-way includes a flyover bridge to let the left turns on westbound Randall pass above the signalized intersection at Immokalee Road. A reconfigured intersection, FDOT reports, would allow for one exclusive right-turn-only lane for westbound Randall Boulevard to northbound Immokalee Road; a shared, left-turn through lane to allow drivers to access westbound Immokalee Road and Fourth Street Northeast; and a U-turn to eastbound Randall Boulevard.