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County approves new development regs for Pine Island

By Staff | Apr 6, 2016

New regulations that could increase density on-island while also providing an incentive for development off-island in areas of the county better able to handle that growth were unanimously approved by the Lee County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday.

In the final of two public hearings, the elected board approved regulations that dramatically change the maximum number of dwellings allowed per acre in areas of the island designated coastal rural, but also approved a program that will allow large property owners to transfer development rights to other areas of the county where officials say such growth is desired.

Proponents of the original Pine Island Plan, adopted by the county 1994 to manage future growth on the island while maintaining Pine Island’s unique character, were resigned but still disappointed.

“The vote was 5-0 against us, and it’s what I expected,” said environmental activist Phil Buchanan after the meeting.

“I don’t think we will see anything happen very quickly but, theoretically, it’s now possible to build a couple thousand more houses on the island and they made no provision for the infrastructure to support those houses.”

According to County Attorney Richard Wesch, the new transfer of development rights program, which provides an incentive for transferring rights to “receiving areas” in North Fort Myers, Lehigh Acres ands south Fort Myers, will all but eliminate excessive growth on the island. It’s a voluntary, market-based program and it’s intended to help protect the island’s agricultural lands while also reducing long-range island buildout, two things island residents have said throughout a process dating back to the ’90s are critical for Pine Island.

Proponents also say there is an immediate benefit to taxpayers countywide.

The development rights transfer program is also intended to mitigate the possibility of more lawsuits from property owners who maintain their rights to develop their properties were abridged by the county when it re-designated approximately 7,400 acres classified as rural to the then-new coastal rural designation in 2003, reducing, in 2007, maximum allowable density from one unit per acre to one per 10 acres.

The legal challenge began in 2009 when eight landowners owning a collective 180 acres sued the county under the Bert Harris Act, also called the Private Property Rights Protection Act.

The need for a solution ratcheted up in 2014 when the courts found the county liable under the act, which provides for “damages” resulting from laws, regulations or ordinances that “may inordinately burden, restrict or limit private property rights.”

The county settled the lawsuit, however threats of additional claims, potentially costing the county in excess of $100 million, prompted proposed changes to the original Pine Island Plan.

Legal and staff reviews began in early 2015 and multiple meetings ensued with the county’s stated goal being to “preserve the unique coastal rural character of the Pine Island community” while also limiting “potential liability from current and anticipated land use and property rights cases brought by Pine Island landowners.”

The density figure in the new regulatory implementation vote Tuesday is a maximum of one unit per 2.7 acres. It also provides for numerous other restrictions, including those related to open space.