The Lee Board of County Commissioners approved the Kingston project, a Cameratta Companies development of 6,676 acres of land on Corkscrew Road.
Upon approval of the project, commissioners avoided the payment of $63 million to settle a 2011 lawsuit by Corkscrew Grove Limited Partnership over the denial of lime rock mining on the site. The property, previously used for agriculture, extends from south of Corkscrew Road to State Road 82, bordering conservation land such as CREW and the Imperial Marsh Preserve.
The proposed development agreement includes 10,000 dwelling units, 240 hotel units, 700,000 square feet of commercial use and 3,287 acres of restoration, conservation and flow way.
“This is essentially building another city at the east end of Corkscrew Road,” Estero resident Patty Whitehead said.
Cameratta Companies President Ray Blacksmith said the development will benefit the community, referring to the success of Cameratta’s other properties on Corkscrew corridors. One of the properties, The Place, was used to showcase the success of Cameratta’s conservation lands.
“Our efforts on the Kingston project will duplicate the restoration work that we’ve done at The Place and Verdana Village,” Blacksmith said.
Development conditions of the project include open space, a human wildlife coexistence plan, a central irrigation system and hydraulic connections to provide an opportunity to improve flood control in the Wildcat Farms neighborhood.
The property is in a Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource area, a land-use category incorporated in the Lee Plan to address development’s effect on wetlands and natural resources.
Cameratta acknowledged some of the development’s inconsistencies with the Lee Plan, but explained each inconsistency was met with evidence of protection of the public interest. “The idea of DRGR was to protect the land from overdevelopment and to protect it from high density and intensity,” Whitehead said. “The type of development you see here is extreme density and intensity.”
The density per dwelling unit is 1.5 dwelling units per acre.
Despite the concern of residents and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which described the property as environmentally sensitive, others said action was necessary.
“We recognize where the project’s located in the DRGR,” Blacksmith said. “We recognize that Lee County envisioned that as a conservation and restoration area, but it’s laid dormant for more than a decade because it takes money to get the work done.”
Along with questioning of the integrity of the DRGR came concerns regarding the guidelines of the Environmental Enhancement & Preservation Communities Overlay. It encompasses properties deemed critical to providing regional benefits such as re-establishing wetlands, flow ways, hydrology and wildlife corridors within southeast Lee County.
The overlay provided an opportunity to achieve the environmental objectives by allowing for the possibility of higher residential density in exchange for developer commitments to provide regional benefits.
The project is said to be consistent with the DRGR and meets nearly every criterion of the EEPCO, according to Dan DeLisi, as he presented the proposed development to the commissioners. However, others find the development to be inconsistent with the overlay guidelines.
“The EEPCO comparison is being used to greenwash the project and confuse the public rather than actually being a development that conforms to the standards and requirements of an EEPCO community,” said Julianne Thomas, senior environmental planning specialist of the conservancy.
The additional 2,474 acres added to the development agreement from the original 4,200 acres of the denied mine in the Harris Act claim raised concerns from residents and environmentalists.
“Adding 2,500 acres of land use intensification to a settlement is significant,” Thomas said. “We question both the legality and the public benefit of a development agreement or settlement agreement, which includes the southern 2,500 acres.”
Blacksmith said the added acreage was to incorporate more conservation and restoration area.
“You can’t do the amount of restoration work that’s going to be performed on the northerly piece without also continuing that all the way to the discharge location,” Blacksmith said.
Despite all the concerns, residents such as Linda Nelson anticipate the development coming to fruition.
Nelson lives within 100 feet of the property line of the development and looks forward to seeing improvements she said the developers would provide.
The developer plans on removing the berm on the property and adding drainage alongside the road to help reduce flooding in the area, a change Nelson and other residents said they want to see.
“They’re going to help us out and alleviate a lot of the water, if not all of it,” Nelson said. “I am so excited because if a mine went in, it would’ve destroyed our house.”
Along with helping with flooding, there are water supply and quality benefits expected to be improved by a 77% reduction of water use.
The development is also expected to help with traffic issues by including a road connecting Corkscrew to State Road 82.
Some anticipate the 61% open space included in the concept plan, while others find issues with it.
“The majority of that land is going to be consumed by the footprint of those 10,000 homes,” Whitehead said. “That included certain buffers between properties and those buffers really aren’t functional for wildlife.”
The commissioners said they were faced with two options, approve the proposed development or approve a mine and owe $63 million.
“Framing the issue as having only two choices is incorrect,” Thomas said. “Lee County could have crafted a better, or at least different, settlement agreement that was actually in line with EEPCO standards and was limited to the 4,200 acre mine site.”
Thomas said Lee County staff believes it is allowed to expand the site by 2,500 acres and they haven’t elaborated upon how such actions would be in the best interest for the public.
“This was supposed to be a negotiated settlement,” Whitehead said. “They weren’t supposed to accept everything they saw on paper without further scrutiny. They just accepted it as is.”
However, some say the approval of the Kingston project was a no-brainer when considering the latter, being that a rock mining site would eliminate the option of public interest and environmental protection.
“If you’re doing a coin toss, do you want a miner or do you want a residential development constructed by a company that’s got experience and history on how to do it right?” Blacksmith said. “When we’re done, it’ll be better than what we’ve committed to do. We’ve always done what we’ve said we’d do and that’ll happen here.”
Following the approval at the public hearing Wednesday, the county will be filing a petition for court review and approval. If the court approves the settlement, then the case will be over, along with the $63 million claim against the county.