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Boom and bust

The affluent are drawn to a promised life of luxury. But the area has cracked under pressure of growing too fast.

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2001


NAPLES -- In many ways, it is the story of Florida's past and future all at once.

Collier County, recently crowned the second-fastest growing metropolitan area in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau, is cracking under the pressure.

Its sewage treatment plant could not handle the burden generated by its moneyed winter residents and overflowed into an environmentally protected river a dozen times during the past few months.

The county has suffered the embarrassment of having a couple of its former commissioners indicted, accused of taking cash and free golf games in exchange for favorable votes in land development deals.

Its roads are gridlocked at peak times, its landfill is near capacity, and its population of about 70 Florida panthers is being threatened by creeping suburbia that pins them ever closer to the Everglades.

Collier's freewheeling development -- similar to that in Pinellas in the 1950s and 1960s -- is showing an ugly side, like a loud, drunk relative at a posh wedding.

"Nobody planned," laments Naples Vice Mayor Joseph Herms. "Nobody wanted to. We have a nightmare on our hands."

It is a tale poised to repeat itself in a fast-growing state that still has significant tracts of undeveloped land, some of it coastal.

In Collier, which grew an astonishing 65 percent during the 1990s to 251,000 people, it has become apparent that fixing the urban snarl will not be cheap, easy or fast.

"I think this county has been in denial about growth and obligations," said Nancy Payton, a Naples-based field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

The afflictions of growth, however, couldn't happen in a nicer place. Collier's beaches and its laid-back lifestyle are a magnet for wealthy people of leisure.

It has a median income of more than $65,000, the highest of any county in Florida, though only 40 percent of its residents earn a weekly paycheck, said Greg Mihalic, the county's director of housing and urban improvement.

Collier, he said, has people who do lunch, shop in boutiques and make relaxation an art form.

"But they can only flush on alternate days," he said in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the county's sewage treatment woes.

The county is anchored by Naples, where the purr of so many luxury SUVs is superseded only by the symphony of leaf blowers that keep the winding streets tidy. It is a place where waiting three cycles at a traffic light has become as much a part of life as a weekday round of golf and a $30 lunch.

At the Cocohatchee River Park on a recent day, palms swayed gently in the 80-degree breeze. If the empty boat trailers were any indication, a lot of people were out on the water for a Thursday afternoon. The mangroves were lush; the water glass green.

The scene was idyllic, unless you thought about the recent unpleasantness. That would be the sewage plant spills.

Since January, 1.8-million gallons of partially treated wastewater poured into a canal that feeds into the Cocohatchee, designated an outstanding Florida water. The river, in turn, flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

The trouble is that the plant was built to accommodate the average sewage flow, not the maximum, said Joe Cheatham, Collier's wastewater director.

The decision to go with the smaller plant was made by a County Commission consumed by keeping taxes low to make developers happy, said Payton, the Florida Wildlife Federation representative, who cheerfully admits to a contentious relationship with the last commission.

Last year, two former commissioners were charged in a public corruption case that centers on gifts they are accused of taking in exchange for their favorable votes on a golf course development.

But that's only part of the story, Payton said.

"These were the commissioners who were in charge when the tough decisions were not made," Payton said.

Traffic load standards were adjusted, having the net effect of making things seem better than they were, Payton said. Developers' lawyers had sway with county staffers. Decisions were made to build smaller, cheaper sewage treatment plants.

"Those of us who challenged were humiliated publicly," Payton said. "It was a nasty, nasty time."

With a new County Commission, and renewed scrutiny of Collier's comprehensive plan, the county's blueprint for growth, those who want to see better planning are hopeful.

The county is far from built out, and the fate of substantial chunks of undeveloped land are yet to be decided.

There is time to get a grip on the runaway growth that has defined Collier in the past two decades, say those who make it their business to decipher dense but important issues such as comprehensive planning and land use designations.

"The problem is that this is a wonderful place to live," said Kathy Prosser, president and chief executive officer of Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "This is paradise. But it's going to take a tremendous amount of courage and effort to get growth back in line."


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