by SCCF Environmental Director Matt DePaolis
The proposed Eden Oak project marks a huge turning point for coastal resilience. It will determine how Lee County approaches coastal development following Hurricane Ian. The project proposes removing 36 acres of mangrove wetlands in the coastal high hazard zone and building 55 residential homes.
After years of delays and continuances, the project’s zoning change proposal will finally be before Lee County’s Board of County Commissioners on Wednesday, April 5. It is critical that these elected officials understand why they need to deny it.
Since 2016, Eden Oak has been opposed at every turn by SCCF and community members who have spoken out against this development that will put current and future homeowners at risk to the detriment of the environment.
In addition to providing storm protection to the current homeowners that live near its borders, the area is home to wild birds, biologically vulnerable terrapins, and endangered sawfish.
Most recently the hearing examiner recommended a denial of the zoning request, stating that due to the project’s impacts on wetlands in a ‘Coastal High Hazard’ area, she was not legally able to recommend rezoning.
While this seemed like good news, implicated within the hearing examiner’s denial was the legal reasoning that the county commissioners could still grant the zoning change without her recommendation due to reliance on the part of the applicant. An analysis by SCCF’s land use attorney determined that this reasoning was flawed and the commissioners should accept her recommendation at face value and deny the proposed zoning change.
Now, with the commissioners finally poised to make a decision, the applicant has requested a remand back to the hearing examiner. The applicant hopes that a remand will allow the hearing examiner to incorporate her recent decision that seems to run directly counter to the Lee Plan.
Specifically, the decision contradicts the Lee Plan’s objectives to protect human life and property while “conserving the natural functions of wetlands by maintaining wetland protection regulations.” Instead of using available science and our county’s legislation to determine how to intelligently develop Lee County, the hearing examiner seeks to allow the county to abdicate any analysis to the state.
The county has taken the position that if the state grants a permit to do any work in wetlands, the area will no longer be considered wetlands, and restrictions that previously accompanied development in the area are void.
If this is accepted as the rule, the distinction between wetlands and uplands will exist only on paper, with a total disregard for the actual condition of the land. The decision also ignores the ecosystem services provided by wetlands for anything other than flood storage capacity, ignoring the benefits bestowed by wetlands through storm surge protection and wind attenuation.
Now, in the wake of Hurricane Ian, we have an opportunity to learn from the storm and the immense value that conserving our natural spaces conferred on us. The wetlands along Shell Point Boulevard protected the homes around them and provided a refuge for animals displaced from the storm.
Eden Oak, 2023
By removing wetlands and adding additional residential homes in the coastal high hazard area through the county’s desired reading of the Lee Plan and the Land Development Code, the hearing examiner risks a higher hazard to humans living along the coast.
This issue came to light after the hearing examiner recommended approval of the “Greenwell Request” that seeks to remove wetlands in the coastal high hazard area further inland on the Caloosahatchee, at the behest of one of the sitting county commissioners.
The county has made it clear that if this decision is allowed to stand, the county will not protect any wetlands that have caught the eye of a developer. Instead, the state and county will both point the finger of blame at each other as they permit the wholesale destruction of our wetlands as our communities are caught in a circular race to the bottom.
In the aftermath of Ian, the county now has an opportunity to protect the natural spaces that will continue to protect us from the storms of the future. Let’s hope that our county commission makes the right decision on April 5.