Sep 23, 2014
Environmentalists want state to stop Hendry development
By Chad Gillis
Dozens of environmental groups are pushing the state to stop a development plan in eastern Hendry County that would allow 18,000 homes and 25 million square feet of industrial and commercial space, but advocates say the area desperately needs jobs and tax dollars the project could bring.
Like most of Hendry County, the land — about 67 square miles or almost twice the size of Fort Myers — is owned by U.S. Sugar Corp. and Hilliard Brothers of Florida. Some of it has been targeted for purchase by the South Florida Water Management District, which started buying out U.S. Sugar in 2010. The district has an option to buy the land — now zoned for agriculture and low-concentration residential — in October of 2015. If zoning is changed, the land would likely go up in value as residential and commercial uses is worth more than farm land.
"Hendry County is the poorest county in the state, and we have double the state average of unemployment rate," said Judy Sanchez, with the U.S. Sugar Corp. "Hendry County has been trying to diversity its economy ... and has long pushed for some of that land to be available for development."
Opponents say much of the land would be better used for Everglades restoration and related projects. And because the state has an option to buy some of those lands next year, some fear the corporations pushing for the plan change are simply trying to make their land more expensive — a cost they say could be passed on to taxpayers. The development plan is at least 15-20 years out.
"It's an entitlement," said Rae Ann Wessel, with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, one of 46 environmental groups around that signed the letter to Gov. Rick Scott and sent it to him earlier this month.
"The concept is by doing this plan now, you're potentially raising the price the state would have to pay to execute the option."
Hendry County stretches from the southwest edge of Lake Okeechobee east to Lee County and south to Collier. About 38,000 people live there, and U.S. Sugar is the largest employer.
Pollution from sugar farms and other agriculture operations is often blamed for poor water quality, algal blooms and fish kills on the east and west coasts. Developers connected the lake about a century ago to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers as a way to drain the Everglades, and various state and federal agencies have spent decades trying to reverse the ecological damage.
Residents living in the Fort Myers-Naples area and near Stuart on the east coast have for years said nutrient-laden water from Lake Okeechobee has, at times, crippled local fisheries, oyster populations and the overall health of coastal estuaries -- which are protected by state and federal laws.
A major crux of the Everglades restoration is sending water south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay instead of east and west through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie systems. Lands in Hendry County have been and will continue to be crucial to rebuilding the famed River of Grass.
"They need some economic vitality, but what do you get with another (sugar) mill or a logistics port?" Wessel said. "Maybe we can scale that back and have room for both."
Wessel and others say the lands in Hendry County, which are south and west of Lake Okeechobee, are the connection between Okeechobee and the Everglades. Without those lands, they say, the Everglades restoration will be hampered.
"It's not necessarily that we're putting projects on these locations, but they would allow us to make adjustments to create the flow basins, the (stormwater treatment areas) and all the pieces we need, this is a key part of that," she said. "And that was part of the vision the whole time."
Sanchez said the opposition is overselling the need to buy farm land, and that the lands will be either a part of the development or remain in agriculture use.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with Everglades restoration, and the environmental rhetoric that's being thrown is a cloud of smoke," Sanchez said. "There's no need for this knee-jerk reaction, that the sky is falling. This is about jobs and economic opportunities for people in Hendry County."
Butch Wilson, director of the Clewiston Museum, said he wants to see growth in the community but also preservation of sensitive and unique wild lands.
"We need more industry, but at the same time I would like to see it monitored," said Wilson, who grew up in South Bay and worked for U.S. Sugar for 32 years and now lives in Clewiston. "We don't want to become the east coast or the west coast. I don't want to see overdevelopment. We don't want to lose the wildlife habitat like it has been lost on the coasts."
Wilson said people in Clewiston and nearby towns often feel left out of major projects like the Everglades restoration. Their voices, he says, make little difference when the more-populated coastal areas speak out on an issue like water quality and agriculture.
The region gets blame, too, when algal blooms pop up along beaches.
"You've got to point your finger somewhere," Wilson said. "I know in the past there were legitimate reasons to point fingers, but I think the farmers are doing more to correct their practices — to help the environment — than anyone."
Jonathan Ullman, with the Everglades chapter of Sierra Club, said it doesn't make sense to build more development in areas like Clewiston. Towns south of the lake flooded during hurricanes decades ago (thousands died in an unnamed 1928 storm), and the Army Corps says its top priority for managed Lake Okeechobee is to prevent the loss of life and property damage.
"They're walling off much of Lake Okeechobee from the Everglades with development. That means all the things associated with a massive city, which this is, a sprawling, massive city," Ullman said. "And this right next to the dike, which puts even more people in harm's way. We would like them to withdraw the plan, and we would like the governor and the ... district ... to reject it."