Collier moves forward with purchase of environmentally sensitive ranch land
For 10 months, a camera trap has been watching the wildlife at Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. Panthers, bobcats and other critters stroll through trails throughout the watershed.
Naples Daily News
More than 900 acres of environmentally sensitive ranch land in rural Collier County could soon be in the county’s hands, but what it would do with the property is not yet decided.
Collier commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to move forward with steps to potentially buy a 967-acre property, known as HHH Ranch, located east of Collier Boulevard and just north of the cross-state Alligator Alley stretch of Interstate 75. The land is owned by Dr. Francis Hussey Jr. and his wife, Mary Pat.
Previous coverage: Collier County takes steps that could lead to purchase of environmentally sensitive ranch land
Commissioners directed county staff to negotiate terms with the property owners and signaled they were willing to pay the $10 million asking price, despite two recent appraisals commissioned by the county showing the average value for the land to be $8.55 million.
“I think the ecological value alone for our community is far in excess of what the sellers are asking for this piece of property,” said Commissioner Bill McDaniel, whose district includes the property.
Read this: Commissioners to consider environmentally sensitive ranch land in east Collier
The parcel, once the subject of legal battles with the county over property rights, was initially offered to the county earlier this year for $11 million.
And in 2017, the board rejected an offer to buy it for $75 million. The average of two appraisals that year valued the property at $8.2 million.
Commission Chairman Burt Saunders and other commissioners agreed that the land would be an important get for the county. Saunders said he didn’t have a problem with the $10 million asking price and that he worried about waiting too long.
“I certainly don’t have a problem with a lower price,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m concerned that if we continue this conversation concerning price, we may lose this opportunity to buy this.”
Environmental groups had urged commissioners to buy the land, pointing to the role it plays as habitat for endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and the Florida panther. A radio-collared panther, they said, has raised at least two litters of kittens on the ranch land.
Aerials of HHH Ranch. (Photo: Provided by Land Solutions)
The HHH Ranch property, environmentalists said, also could provide an opportunity for future wildlife crossings along I-75 to allow panthers to safely travel north from Picayune Strand State Forest. And 670 acres of wetlands may provide water quality protection benefits.
“It has incredible environmental value,” Meredith Budd, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, told commissioners Tuesday.
Gladys Delgadillo, environmental policy specialist for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the land is “about as environmentally sensitive as they come,” and buying and preserving it could finally end “a tug of war” that has been waged over the property for years.
“Preservation of the property via any means would be a resounding win for the county, the public and for Collier County’s wildlife and water,” she told commissioners.
Aerials of HHH Ranch. (Photo: Provided by Land Solutions)
Budd, Delgadillo and Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate for Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida, sent a joint letter to commissioners prior to Tuesday’s meeting.
In it, they asked the county to move forward with the purchase but to hold off on any decisions for future use until more information is provided and the public can better participate in the decision-making process.
“Please do give us an opportunity to jump in on that,” Cornell told commissioners Tuesday.
But while environmentalists would like to see the property preserved, plans for the land, if the county does purchase it, could include an array of options, such as housing for essential service personnel and an extension of Wilson Boulevard, contemplated in the county’s long-range transportation plan.
The idea would be to connect Wilson Boulevard to Benfield Road to provide another north-south route to accommodate current and future growth and take pressure off Collier Boulevard, said county spokeswoman Connie Deane.
The proposed roadway could potentially lead all the way south to U.S. 41 East.
If the property is bought, county staff would work with the nearby property owners to evaluate the relocation of the roadway “to minimize the environmental impacts, reduce right of way acquisition, and lower the construction cost,” county staff wrote in a report to commissioners.
The relocated roadway would also reduce mitigation cost and “potentially increase the opportunity for incorporating a water quality component to the project,” staff wrote.
Buying the property and potentially leading the proposed roadway through the ranch land could save the county millions, Deputy County Manager Nick Casalanguida told commissioners.
“By relocating a road, you have the potential savings of $3 to $5 million, in just road relocation costs,” he said.
Casalanguida told commissioners he would not recommend acquiring the property “if you don’t acknowledge or we don’t acknowledge that, you’re going to build a road here someday and this will save you significant dollars.”
County officials are looking at a variety of ways to pay for the land. What will happen to it should they be successful in buying it is likely to become the topic of more public discourse.
“The future use of it will be the subject of a lot of discussion,” said commissioner Andy Solis.
Connect with the reporter at [email protected] or on Twitter @PatJRiley.
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