EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is provided to the Santiva Chronicle by Michael J. Collins, MD, FACS. The Santiva Chronicle publishes opinions from local citizens who are addressing topics that are important to Sanibel and Captiva. They may be submitted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of my favorite past-times is recreational fishing and it’s also one of the primary reasons I love living in Southwest Florida. I’m also a physician and private practice owner so I understand the need for balance between environmental regulation and the free enterprise economy. Protecting the property at Eden Oak is one example of that delicate balance.
Eden Oak, located on the west side of Shell Point Blvd in South Fort Myers is privately owned land consisting of mostly mangroves and other wetlands. The owners want to re-zone a portion of this property to be dredged and filled to accommodate 55 single family residences and a multi-slip docking facility.
The County employees responsible for reviewing this request have recommended denial of this project. This is the right decision. According to County staff, if approved it will adversely affect environmentally critical and sensitive areas and natural resources, and present compatibility-related concerns to adjacent uses because of these adverse environmental impacts.
Why all the concern about wetlands? According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, our State has lost 44% of its wetlands since it became a state in 1845 and at the time of a 2010 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study, Lee County had lost 38 square miles of forested wetlands and was experiencing a much bigger percentage loss than the national average.
What are we learning from the recent devastating red tide and blue-green algae blooms and the steady precipitous decline in our water quality? We are learning that wetlands play a critical role in our natural environment – they filter our pollution and provide critical fish and wildlife habitat. I have seen with my own eyes that this Eden Oak area has irreplaceable habitat and is a nursery for local fish and wildlife. I have also seen other areas nearby that were devastated by the red tides and algae blooms of 2018, where habitat and nurseries were destroyed and no longer contain wildlife like the sensitive and rare sawfish I would see in these areas on a regular basis.
The quantity and health of mangrove and wetland systems have a direct impact on coastal protection. To borrow from a recent Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) Coastal Resilience Connections article, mangroves provide an abundance of function and value including protection from wind and waves and absorption of extra nutrients benefiting water quality. While the protective capacity of these natural systems are being impacted by development, they’re also potentially being stressed by climate change and sea level rise. That is why it is imperative that we preserve and protect the systems we have left.
Please don’t dismiss this as an incidence of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard). This is a request for responsible planning. Lee County’s population is growing exponentially and with it the demand for housing. If we don’t make the appropriate decisions now, we will all suffer the consequences through loss of storm protection, loss of wildlife habitat and increased flooding. My hope would be that we could make a serious effort to incentivize redevelopment as we are quickly putting structures on what little open space we have left.
On July 12, 2022, the Lee County Hearing Examiner will hear the final Eden Oak rezoning presentations by staff and the developer. The Hearing Examiner will make a recommendation on this rezoning request, but the final decision will be made by the Lee County Commissioners. Lee County’s zoning polices prohibit discussing this case with elected Commissioners unless you’ve testified to the Hearing Examiner first. That opportunity has passed but the public can attend (but not address) the Commissioners when the final vote is taken.
Let’s encourage our elected officials to protect important wetlands like Eden Oak so that we can preserve the valuable benefits that give back to us all.