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Lee County, Florida (Fort Myers) is moving forward with an innovative plan to use clustered, dense development instead of large-lot zoning to protect its water supply.  Under current zoning the southeastern portion of the Gulf coast county has been threatened by the spread of both limerock mining and large-lot "ranchettes" in an 83,000-acre "groundwater resource area" that supplies 80 percent of the county's potable water.  Over time the new plan will allow the restoration of a substantial portion of the area's wetlands, while still allowing mining in a restricted zone for 20 years and allowing the same amount of housing development in a more clustered form.

Currently the area features isolated wetlands surrounded by citrus groves, with mining in its northwest corner.  In 1990, the county designated the region a "density reduction/groundwater resource area."  Seemed like a good idea at the time, no doubt, when prevailing environmental thinking was that restricting density was good for watersheds.  That theory has been debunked, of course, since we now know that for a given number of households more concentrated development actually does a much better job of protecting water.  Moreover, under the 5- and 10-acre lots permitted by the old plan, development could occupy all of the currently agricultural land in the area, precluding recovery of the wetlands:

  the old zoning allows wetlands to be surrounded by sprawl (courtesy of Dover Kohl & Partners)   

The area was once 86% covered by wetlands, about half of which have since been lost.  The new plan, which still must pass state review, will allow the same number of homes to be built but restrict them to a concentrated area, preserving the rest for agriculture and wetland restoration:

  concentrated development will allow wetland recovery and sustained agriculture (courtesy of Dover Kohl & Partners) 

Mining interests and other landowners in the conservation area will be compensated by selling their development rights to builders who want to pursue compact development in the development zone.  The new plan was given the go-ahead by county commissioners last week.

The plan has been opposed by the mining interests, but they are not shut out of the new scheme.  While their rights will be restricted to a designated zone, there is room for limited expansion and enough rock in the zone to supply the companies for 20 years.  The accommodation "strikes the right balance," as noted by the Fort Myers News-Press in an editorial.

Density without conservation fails to live up to its smart growth promise.  But conservation without density is an illusion doomed to fail.  Lee County shows how to link the two.

The plan was developed by Dover, Kohl & Partners.  More pictures and links here.

Kaid Benfield writes occasional "Village Green" commentary on DailyKos and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard.  For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.

Originally posted to Kaid at NRDC on Tue Nov 03, 2009 at 09:38 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Nice, clear, informative diary ... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DBunn, Hill Jill, freesia

    on an underdiscussed topic. Tipped and rec'd.

    "The smartest man in the room is not always right." -Richard Holbrooke

    by Demi Moaned on Tue Nov 03, 2009 at 10:14:23 AM PST

  •  Hi, Kaid (0+ / 0-)

    former intern here--nice post, good work as usual.

    Grab a mop or shut up, dammit!

    by SouthernLiberalinMD on Tue Nov 03, 2009 at 10:20:49 AM PST

  •  Well, d'uh... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    greenskeeper, DBunn

    A google earth search of northern Europe and northern  (formerly eastern)Germany will reveal villages developed just like this for centuries.  The only reason we could have the large lot zoning we have had up to now is due almost entirely to the omnipresent oil abundance we have had for the last 3/4 century or more.  All the ancient cities we love so much are human scale by default: before discovery of petroleum.  

    By the way, there is no such thing as sustainable development, as it necessarily means that something has to be torn down to build something else up.  Sim Van Der Ryn, author, architect and planner summed up sustainability like this: "any form of design that minimizes environmentally destructive impacts by integrating itself with living process."

    This means integrating natural systems WITHIN new and existing development, such as using bioswales, eliminating storm sewers as much as possible, and providing truly walkable communities where basic services and people gathering places are close to existing and improved transportation alternatives.  

    But still: clustered development like this in the boonies means you need a (gasp) CAR to get from there to other nearby or far away centers.  

    The time has come for us to be thinking about De-growth, a movement that is starting to happen worldwide in other places with better media than our country; it is a concept that we scale back and re-focus on the bones of existing development and land use patterns that in the long run can be supported in an era of less energy.  Integral to that is the idea that finally we have to confront the paradigm of capitalism and how you cannot have capitalism as we have it now, and a healthy ecosystem.  

    A healthy ecosystem means acknowledging that we are ultimately subservient to the laws of nature, cause and effect, and can no longer behave as if we are dominators.

  •  Breakthrough testimony last week (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DBunn, freesia

    Wondering if you saw this?

    DOT, HUD, and EPA are working together to support the building of more livable neighborhoods with "complete" streets that increase safety and mobility for all users by giving Americans –whether they live in urban, suburban or rural communities--the choice of walking, biking, or riding transit instead of driving motor vehicles. If the presence of these alternatives promotes less driving, then that will reduce road congestion, reduce pollutants and greenhouse gases, and use land more efficiently.

    The work of Livable City and sustainable transportation activists is finally starting to get a voice in DC. LaHood is really making all the right noises. He's the coolest Republican I know.

    "One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity nothing beats teamwork." - Mark Twain

    by greendem on Tue Nov 03, 2009 at 10:25:42 AM PST

  •  The clusters (0+ / 0-)

    really need to be big enough to support at least some everyday services, perhaps a small store, bank branch, post office, elementary school, a coffeeshop, just to name a few. If a cluster is too small it becomes a bedroom community, encouraging car use several times a day for most households, and/or trapping the non-drivers in a life of dependancy.  Having local businesses integrated with residences makes for a livelier street scene, something that is sorely lacking in the burbs and semi-rural areas where these clusters might be built.
    Tipped and recced the diary for bringing this subject up on DK.

  •  Unfortunately, (0+ / 0-)

    This is a ruse by the developers to sell more houses.  It's been going on in Colorado for years, , especially with "In-fill" development.  There are a myriad of problems with it.  Values don't keep up.  The retail never works.  People in single family homes don't like living next to noisy and traffic heavy apartments.  These things are just the latest ruse by developers for higher density.  If you live in NY or another large city, these types of things may be attractive.  But, at least in Colorado, they don't really do anything except increase density, which I don't think is necesarily a good thing.  There is more traffic congestion and less ability in existing neighborhoods to increase capacity on streets.  Cars travel more slowly and pollute more.

    If what you want is open space, then tax yourselves and buy it up.  That's what we've done very successfully in Colorado.  The little pieces of "urban parks" just really don't help.  They are just an eyesore and an expensive upkeep problem.  Go for the larger tracts.

  •  Thanks for the comments (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    First, I couldn't agree more that this plan represents an inadequate solution to our land-use problems.  It does, however, illustrate a direction that I believe necessary: emphasize compact and infill development as a corollary to conservation outside of development areas.  Too often we have seen one without the other.  But the scale in this case is extremely limited at best.

    Contrary to the gentleman's apparent Colorado experience, there are many, many highly successful and popular infill, mixed-use, smart-growth projects, for which buyers are often willing to pay a premium because they are in short supply.

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