Sunday, April 14, 2019

BikeWalkLee urges County Commissioners to reject proposals to eliminate controls over mining on April 17th

On April 17th, the Lee County Commissioners will decide whether to adopt amendments to the County's Comprehensive Plan (Lee Plan) that will eliminate the current controls on lime rock mining in Lee County.  This proposal threatens our water supply, water quality, and quality of life.  On April 14th, BikeWalkLee sent a letter to Commissioners asking them to reject these proposed amendments because of the lasting harm that will be done to our quality of life (already seriously eroded) and the County's primary tool for enhancing livability--the Lee Plan, two of BWL's overarching goals. 

Lee County is at a critical crossroads and much is at stake in the Board's April 17th decision.  If you care about Lee County's future, attend Wednesday April 17th (9:30 a.m. in Commission Chambers) County Commission Hearing on the proposed Comp Plan amendments to deregulate lime rock mining.  Last week's Action Alert will provide you with background information.

April 14, 2019

 Dear Commissioners:

On April 17 you will be asked to decide whether to adopt Lee Plan amendments that eliminate the current controls on lime rock mining in Lee County, allowing expansion of mining--the most destructive (and non-reversible) land use. This is one of the most consequential decisions this Board will make about Lee County’s future; it will impact our water supply, water quality, and quality of life for current and future generations. BikeWalkLee urges you to listen to the many voices countywide in strong opposition to this proposal and reject these proposed amendments.

BikeWalkLee focuses on ways to improve and support our county’s quality of life through better safety, health, and mobility. One of the most important governmental tools for enhancing livability is integrated planning, which is embodied in the county’s Comprehensive Plan. Our comments below focus on both the quality of life and integrated planning consequences of this proposal.

County Commissioners who will make decision on April 17th
Quality of Life
The county’s current path of rampant and unfettered development is unsustainable and incompatible with the quality of life that has drawn so many to make Lee County their home. If approved, this Lee Plan amendment opens the flood gates to expand mining throughout Southeast Lee County, directly impacting the quality of life of thousands of residents in Estero and Bonita Springs every day the mines are in operation—from cracks in homes due to mining explosions, to the never ending parade of trucks on local roadways creating noise, health, safety, and traffic issues. 

Communities outside the Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource (DR/GR) Area which have mineable limerock could also be at risk of having mines being permitted in their backyards, with similar consequences for residents. In addition, the quality and quantity of our water resources are threatened countywide, and the water quality of vital estuaries is further impaired. The impacts from mining directly or indirectly affect all citizens in the county.
 Opening the county up to expanded mining may very well be the last straw for many residents whose quality of life has dramatically deteriorated over the past five years --whether it’s caused by congested roads and crowded schools, lack of safe walking and biking, lack of adequate services for the growing population, or stormwater and flooding problems caused by poorly planned growth. Then there are the toxic algae blooms and fish kills that are creating health hazards, destroying marine life and ruining our beaches and coastal waters -- the drivers of our tourism economy. This not only affects current residents and visitors, it affects the county’s ability to attract and retain workers and families, which are vital to the short-term and long-term economic viability of Lee County. Unfortunately, a community’s reputation for a good quality of life can change overnight-- and once that happens, it can take years of work to repair. We can’t wait until our quality of life is gone to protect it, because it will be too late.

 Improving and maintaining quality of life is an economic necessity, both to grow a diverse economy as well as to maintain a tourist-based one. The role of our elected leaders is to improve the livability of Lee County so we can attract the businesses and skilled workers needed to grow. Good economics and good quality of life feed each other. The decision you make on April 17 will not only affect the current residents, it will affect future generations.

As the 16-year old Swedish climate activist told a United Nations gathering in December 2018: “You say you love your children above all else, and yet you’re stealing their future in front of their very eyes.”

Integrated Planning
One of BikeWalkLee’s top priorities over the past 10 years has been to promote integrated planning by local, regional, and state agencies and elected officials. Our vision is that innovative and integrated land use and transportation planning can enhance our county’s livability. At the same time, this vision encourages creative new development and development in ways that meet the infrastructure needs, need for green spaces, and to locate the growth where infrastructure already exists, while preserving and enhancing the quality of life. In support of this vision, we have been deeply involved in the many county and Metropolitan Planning Organization planning efforts related to land use and transportation.

 The Lee Plan is the county’s overarching planning policy document, serving as a “road map” for the public to know how the county will address a wide variety of issues including land use, transportation, housing, natural and cultural resources protection, economic development, etc. It is the policy foundation from which all other county policies, ordinances, codes, guidelines, and practices flow. It is designed to be a comprehensive, holistic and internally consistent plan that enables the county to implement its stated vision. The state even requires this plan to be updated every seven years to address new challenges and new opportunities the county faces and to fine-tune the framework to better implement the county’s vision – a crucial component of reasonable, consistent planning.

 But the county’s planning efforts are no longer reasonable or consistent. This Lee Plan amendment proposal is just the latest and most alarming yet of the many “small” amendments this Board has approved. Collectively, these amendments are unraveling the very policy foundation of county government. Almost every time a proposed development or zoning request conflicts with something in the Lee Plan, the Plan is amended to accommodate that specific project – the exact opposite of comprehensive planning. The cumulative effect is that the Lee Plan, which hasn’t had a major rewrite in almost 30 years, no longer tells the citizens of this county where we’re headed. It’s doubly tragic because in 2010-2013 the community collaborated with county government to produce a comprehensive revision of the Lee Plan. After years of effort, an award-winning Evaluation and Appraisal Report (EAR) in 2011, and the completion of the Horizon 2035 Plan that represented a consensus of the various groups and committees, this Board never even looked at the Plan and never gave its committees or the public an opportunity to discuss the proposal with the Board. 

The proposed mining amendment is symptomatic of this trend to abandon good ideas and sound planning practices to accommodate the demands of a few rather than the needs of the many. There is a sound and reasonable policy in place today to allow the destructive (but necessary) practice of limerock mining to continue in the DR/GR Area in a way that balances the need for construction materials against the long-held purpose of the DR/GR designation – to encourage groundwater recharge and preserve long-term low-density land uses in the southeast portion of the county. Mining and subsequent restoration could continue as needed and new mines could be allowed once the need for more material was evident (and the damage from old mines was mitigated). That approach balances private rights with public needs and environmental protection.

To abandon this sound planning approach without justification, without assessing the potential damages and without meaningful public input makes a sham of the comprehensive land use planning process as it threatens water quality and aquifer recharge. It also jeopardizes the certainty for other areas of the county to know that their long-term planning protections will actually remain in place should they ever conflict with a developer’s desires to maximize their profits at the expense of the community’s quality of life.

Lee County is at a crossroads. The water quality crisis we experienced in 2018 is still out there, posing an imminent threat to the county’s present and future viability. The pressures of growth on our community continue to expand, while the funding needed to pay for that growth is constricted and inadequate. And the reputation of Lee County as good place to live, work and play continues to erode with every new crisis, every dramatic downturn and every environmental catastrophe. The very future of Lee County hangs in the balance—our ecology, our economy, our quality of life. County leaders should be doing everything in their power to better protect our water quality. Instead, this proposed amendment will make our water quality problem even worse, which is simply unconscionable.

As the Feb. 15th News-Press editorial opposing this proposed amendment stated: “The county needs to protect the environment, not expand mining. This should be a no-brainer for the county commission.”

We hope that you will oppose this unwise and unnecessary amendment to the Lee Plan.


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