Conservancy's case against Rivergrass Village moves forward with outside support

·5 min read

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has filed documents supporting its appeal to overturn a court decision rejecting the group’s challenge to the development of Rivergrass, a village in eastern Collier County.

The 77-page brief, filed Nov. 10, argues the lower court “inappropriately limited the issues and evidence we could bring forth to trial,” said Nicole Johnson, the Conservancy’s director of environmental policy.

In May, Collier Circuit Judge Hugh Hayes ruled against the nonprofit's claims saying legal challenges to the development could only be based on approved uses, such as density and intensity, of the Rivergrass development.

“We weren’t allowed to bring claims of traffic, fiscal neutrality and even land development code,” the Conservancy’s April Olson said. “Rivergrass violated numerous provisions in the land development code and the lower court decided that we could not argue any of those claims, which are inherent in the county’s comprehensive plan.”

Christian Spilker, vice president of land management for Collier Enterprises, points to a map of the proposed Rivergrass Village near Oil Well Road on Monday, January 20, 2020.
Christian Spilker, vice president of land management for Collier Enterprises, points to a map of the proposed Rivergrass Village near Oil Well Road on Monday, January 20, 2020.

Collier County approved the rural village in 2020, sparking the legal fight. Collier Enterprises, a real estate investment and development company based in Naples that plans to develop the village, joined the county against the Conservancy in the suit.

Rivergrass is a 1,000-acre village along Oil Well Road east of Golden Gate Estates within the county’s Rural Land Stewardship Area. The RLSA allows developers to build on low conservation value lands in exchange for preserving more environmentally sensitive lands.

Representatives for Collier Enterprises released a statement when the county approved the village that says it will protect thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive lands at no cost to taxpayers.

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Along with the Conservancy’s filing in November, several environmental and civic organizations have filed briefs in favor of the Conservancy’s position.

Pat Utter, senior vice president of real estate with Collier Enterprises said in an email, "We are reviewing the Amicus Briefs filed in support of the Conservancy’s appeal and will respond as appropriate as part of our Answer Brief, prior to the January 24, 2022, deadline."

As part of the court's initial ruling, the Conservancy is on the hook for legal fees, which currently total $3.4 million, according to Collier Enterprises.

Strong Towns, a national non-profit advocating for “fiscally strong and resilient communities” is one of those groups, saying “it is crucial that citizens have recourse through the judicial system to hold these local governments accountable to their own policies,” its brief says.

The lower court “improperly narrowed the scope of challenges” by dismissing claims based on the county’s own fiscal neutrality requirements, Strong Town’s brief says.

The brief goes on to argue that long-term insolvent development leads to taxpayers footing the bill as infrastructure degrades and requires maintenance.

When it filed the suit, the Conservancy had experts prepared to testify that Rivergrass was not fiscally neutral, Olson said, but those claims were not allowed to move forward.

“We also are concerned that the project will have severe traffic impacts, many of which won’t be mitigated,” she said. “We had a transportation expert who studied traffic impact statements and county road improvement plans and he was unfortunately unable to testify as well under the lower court decision.”

Agricultural fields near Camp Keais Strand, north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, photographed on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.
Agricultural fields near Camp Keais Strand, north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, photographed on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.

Olson and Johnson said these types of legal challenges are the only way the public can challenge a development order and denying the full scope of evidence and experts could chill those rights.

“This is the heart and soul of good governance and quite frankly democracy,” Johnson said. “The avenue to ask a judge to take a look at a decision made by local government.”

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In September, Florida’s First District Court of Appeals ruled on a separate but similar case that validated the Conservancy’s current position, a news release from the group says.

“In the case of Imhof v. Walton County, the appellate court held that the Walton County trial court erred in limiting claims that could be brought forth in in a challenge to a development order,” the release says.

“They were not given their day in court and the First District court agreed that the entirety of the comprehensive plan matters, not just bits and pieces,” Johnson said. “The lower court inappropriately limited evidence that could be brought forward in trial, and it’s really parallel to what happened with the Conservancy case.”

The League of Women Voters of Collier County also filed brief in support of the Conservancy. The League notes that the county’s comprehensive plan and land development code were “created after considerable public input and stakeholder meetings” and “the citizens of Collier County have the right to ensure that all new development within the RLSA enhances the community.”

The League’s brief says Rivergrass in not consistent with RLSA policies and goes against the county’s comprehensive plan’s “clear goals, objectives, and policies and (Land Development Code) regulations.”

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Other groups filing briefs in support of the Conservancy include: Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club Florida, Florida Rights of Nature Network, Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Calusa Waterkeeper, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, Cypress Cove Landkeepers, Stone Crab Alliance, Golden Gate Estates Area Civic Association and Friends of the Everglades and Tropical Audubon Society represented by the Everglades Law Center.

A restored agricultural field within the Rural Land Stewardship Area, photographed on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.
A restored agricultural field within the Rural Land Stewardship Area, photographed on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.

“It feels really good that so many diverse organizations that obviously care about the case and are so deeply concerned,” Johnson said.

The final deadline for Collier Enterprises to file its response is Jan. 24.

“We want to make sure all developments follow the rules of Collier’s Land Development Code,” Olson said. “The outcome (of this suit) will set the tone for developments to come.”

Karl Schneider is a Naples Daily News reporter. You can reach him at kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Conservancy's case against Rivergrass Village moves forward

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