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Collier County District 4 Commissioner Dan Kowal held a public forum session last week, addressing residents’ questions and providing input on a variety of issues the county faces. Kowal, who has held office for six months, provided updates on county projects and priorities, such as affordable housing, the STARabilty Foundation project and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study.  

Beach berm progress

The county’s 2023 Emergency Beach Berm Project began in April and is nearing completion. 

It’s going well. We haven’t had any complaints where the trucks are getting too overbearing going on the beaches,” Kowal said. “And the way they’re going has been working well with the people who are using our beaches, because, believe it or not, we have not slowed down a lot.”  

More than 315,000 tons of the anticipated 400,000 tons of sand have been placed to create berms. The project is reaching the finish line with the South Marco Beach berm starting today, with an anticipated completion time of two weeks. The Port Royal Beach portion of the project could be pushed to November after sea turtle nesting season, as the county must acquire property easements to access the beach.  

Kowal said additional tourism funds have been collected for more vegetation along the berm. 

“[Staff] is working with the [Naples] Botanical Garden to pick the best type of vegetation to withstand the brackish and salt water to replant on the berm,” he said. “There will be additional planting and reinforcement through natural vegetation. And this was money we weren’t expecting to have [to spend], but found, so it’s kind of a bonus to add to what we already set aside to do.”  

Affordable housing 

The county’s Local Housing Land Trust has grown to more than $20 million, as private developers continue to agree to contribute upon request of the commissioners. Most recently, commissioners approved The Haven at North Naples, a 336-unit apartment complex to be built on the southwest quadrant of Airport-Pulling Road and Orange Blossom Drive. South Carolina-based Johnson Development Associates agreed to contribute more than $250,000 toward the fund along with a commitment to provide 77 affordable housing units in the project. 

With less than 20% of the county left to be developed, Kowal said it’s vital that the public and private sector work together to address the lack of income-restricted housing.  

“Even in projects that aren’t required to have [affordable housing], we’re asking for it, that’s the goal,” Kowal said. “We do see the writing on the wall. If we don’t keep our teachers, nurses, firefighters and police here within the community, our way of life is going to change.”  

Although some residents aren’t in favor of the increase in multifamily housing developments with concerns it is changing the landscape of the community, Kowal said affordable housing improvements are vital to keeping the county safe and secure.  

“You want to concern yourself about the commissioners turning us into Miami, let our public safety department diminish. That’s the quickest way for it to become Miami,” he said. “So, until we can figure out this housing issue and get these people to live within our communities and work within our communities, this holds the upmost importance.”  

Once the state’s Live Local Act goes into effect July 1, developers can build multifamily projects on commercial properties as long as 40% of the units are affordable for a period of at least 30 years. The bill, which appropriates $711 million for housing projects through the Florida Housing and Finance Corporation, doesn’t sunset until 2033. Kowal doesn’t see the bill having a large effect on Collier, as developers will be using money out of their own pockets to provide the income-restricted units.  

Coastal study

Starting in 2018, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a federally funded three-year study to provide solutions to beach erosion and address storm surge risks. After shelving the study before its completion, an additional three-year study was approved last August. The draft report is expected to be completed in 2025, but some potential improvements to the area’s high-risk coast, such as flood walls and gates, along with storm surge barriers, alarmed some residents.  

In response to the complex study, commissioners voted to appoint seven members to a newly created Coastal Storm Risk Management Feasibility Study Advisory Committee. This group will be responsible for keeping track of the ongoing study and providing information and updates to the commissioners and the public. Kowal said just because the Army Corps recommends a certain solution, the county does not have to follow through with the recommendation.  

“Eventually when they get to the end of the study, we have to pick what we want or don’t want,” he said. “And we don’t have to choose anything. We can say thank you and shelve the study, or maybe it’s something we want to do later that we can afford to do. We can pick and choose, and it will already be an approved item by the Army Corps, so it wouldn’t be hard for us to push it through if it’s already an approved item. So, it’s good to have that tool in our toolbox.” 

Lakewood issue

Multiple attendees of Kowal’s forum asked for an update on the STARability Foundation’s plans to build a 30,000-square-foot building at Lakewood Country Club’s closed down clubhouse in East Naples. It was Kowal who requested the nonprofit’s project go through the full submittal and approval process through the county, rather than bypassing the process through a conditional use amendment.  

“It’s nothing against STARabillity. I said, ‘Listen we just want it to be right, we want it to be legal,’” Kowal said. “So, as the commissioner in the district, I have a right to request this to go through the full gamut.”  

Kowal anticipates the project won’t be ready to go in front of the board until after September. 

2023 goals

When asked what he hopes to be accomplished by the end of the year, Kowal mentioned being fully prepared for future storm cycles.  

“[Hurricane] Ian was an extraordinary storm. I don’t think anybody expected to have that amount of devastation and destruction happen,” he said. “So, we definitely want to make sure we’re prepared, and our infrastructure is in place because we’re entering into another hurricane season before you know it and it happens every year.” 

Additionally, he wants each proposed housing development that comes before the board to be prepared with an affordable housing component as the developers of The Haven at North Naples did.  

“They knew that coming to the commission, that’s kind of like the writing on the wall,” Kowal said. “We’re going to ask for it, so they better be willing to give it.” 

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