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 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:
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.