Five conservation groups achieved hundreds of acres of additional wetland protection and restoration in a landmark settlement over the Mirasol project, a proposed golf course development in northern Collier County they had opposed and litigated for almost a decade. The settlement, with landowner IM Collier Joint Venture and developer Taylor Morrison, Inc., follows on the groups’ previous settlement, with a different developer, of two adjacent contested projects in 2010 called Saturnia Falls and Parklands. All three developments were proposed originally in 1999 in the ecologically sensitive Cocohatchee Slough, a natural wetland flowway emanating from Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The Slough plays a vital role in providing foraging habitat for the endangered wood stork, whose largest nesting rookery in the nation is at Corkscrew Swamp. The Cocohatchee Slough also provides vital regional watershed benefits, like water supply and flood protection.
The environmental coalition of Audubon Florida, Collier County Audubon Society, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and National and Florida Wildlife Federations settled with the developer and landowner in exchange for greatly increased on- and off-site preserves, reduced development footprint, and a restored arm of the Cocohatchee Slough. On-site enhanced and restored wetland and habitat preserves will now total more than 1100 acres. An additional 1000 acres of off-site farm fields will be restored to those critically scarce shallow wetlands which are essential to nesting success for the endangered wood storks at nearby Corkscrew Swamp. Mirasol has committed to donating a bulk of the on-site preserves – over 1,000 acres – after restoration and if accepted, to the regional wetland and habitat resources partnership project called the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW), or other public land entity. Combined with the preserves of adjacent Saturnia Falls and Parklands, all the Conservation Groups’ Cocohatchee Slough settlements have resulted in 3,500 acres of permanently protected and managed wetlands and habitats.
“Research indicates wood storks are declining in southwest Florida due to the loss of quality foraging habitat early in their nesting season. This settlement will result in the restoration and protection of many hundreds of acres of shallow, seasonal wetlands and should add significantly to foraging opportunity for storks nesting in the Western Everglades,” said Jason Lauritsen, Director and wood stork researcher at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Conservancy of Southwest Florida President Andrew McElwaine underscored the significant water resources and habitat regulatory accomplishments. “This settlement is the result of ten years of advocacy and litigation by Florida’s conservationists. We established a basic principle – development should avoid and minimize impacts to wetlands. In addition, we reaffirmed the policy that cumulative impacts from all surrounding development must be addressed in the permitting process. Taken in conjunction with the neighboring Saturnia Falls and Parklands agreement, this represents a major win for water and wildlife.”
Mirasol was granted a state permit in 2002, then denied a federal permit by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2005, but then granted a subsequent revised permit in 2007. That was followed by litigation over the state and federal permits, which confirmed the state permit, but revoked the federal permit in 2009. A slightly revised federal application was again approved in 2011, and the conservation groups were preparing another round of litigation when settlement discussions were revived in 2011.
Jan Goldman-Carter, Water Resources Counsel for National Wildlife Federation, praised the cumulative ecological benefits of this landmark Mirasol settlement in conjunction with the previous Saturnia Falls and Parklands settlements in 2010. However, she also pointed to the need to persevere on regulatory reforms. “There remain shortcomings in state and federal wetland regulatory reviews, including inaccurate accounting of wetland values, which we continue work to correct. But, at the end of the day, these three settlements offer undeniable meaningful gains for wetlands and wildlife in this critical watershed.”
As originally proposed and permitted by state and federal agencies, Mirasol’s destruction of wetland habitats, combined with other wetland losses in the region, would have had devastating effects on the wood stork nesting colonies at Corkscrew Swamp, the largest in the nation and vital to the species’ recovery. Instead, the settlement should now render an overall positive influence on the regional landscape. Wood storks are also a primary biological indicator of the status of Everglades Restoration across all of South Florida. That status currently is precarious, including no nesting at Corkscrew in five of the last six years.
Looking for further opportunities to prevent regulatory destruction of wetlands and habitat, the environmental groups are working with state and federal agencies to improve the way they permit and compensate for Florida wetland losses. Recommendations currently under consideration could significantly reduce or eliminate such impacts before proposed projects end up in court, wasting time and money, or worse, irrevocably destroying habitat for declining wildlife throughout Florida and harming the public’s interest in protection of vital water resources.
Beyond the regulatory arena, the groups are also working with local governments and private and public landowners to directly improve ecological outcomes on future developments and existing wetlands and habitat. There are many innovative tools and opportunities being crafted and explored, such as incentives, partnerships, grants, tax strategies, acquisition and land use policies, which offer great promise in complement to improved Clean Water Act and state Environmental Resource permitting.