Celebrating 40 Years of Land Conservation

This fall, Lee County voters will have the opportunity to tell county commissioners whether we wish to continue Conservation 20/20, a land-buying program that acquires, restores and conserves lands here. The program, created 20 years ago, is funded through a voter-approved half-mill tax that supports purchases of lands that are critical to our local water supply, flood prevention, habitat preservation and passive recreation. (That’s $5 for every $100,000 in home value.)

According to a recent story in The News-Press, the program has acquired and preserved 3449219_orignearly 25,000 acres of land in the county, including a number of properties right here on Pine Island, notably the Pineland Site Complex, the 8-plus acres where the Randell Research Center’s offices are located, and the more than 900-acre Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve, which has its trailhead at 6351 Stringfellow Road.

But did you know that Pine Island residents have been working to preserve lands and habitat and our Island way of life for much longer than 20/20 has been around? In fact, one of our leading land preservation groups, the Calusa Land Trust, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

When I came to Pine Island in the 1970s, we had a couple of county-owned parks and the county pool and tennis courts were just being built at Pine Island Center, but there weren’t many parks or trails for residents to enjoy.

That changed in 1976 when residents Fred and Diane Johnson provided land on Calusa Island. Their contribution of a 60-acre black mangrove forest and eight acres of tropical hardwood hammock led to the creation of the Calusa Land Trust. The Calusa Island Preserve was followed by the Dean Preserve on the eastern tip of Bocilla Island.

But the Calusa Land Trust really got going with acquisition of the Big Jim Creek Preserve — a 325-acre parcel that protects most of the northwest tip of Pine Island. I was pleased to donate my time as the listing and sales agent for that property (saving the Trust from paying any sales commission) to help support this acquisition and today still love taking my canoe out to paddle around in the preserve’s mangrove forest. What can I say? It’s just a super-cool place and I am truly grateful for the work that Ed Chapin, Bill Spikowski, Alison Ackerman, Rick Moore, Rad Hazen and many others have done over the years to keep the Trust growing.

Today, the Trust has 500 members and continues to work to acquire lands to protect the beauty and natural diversity that is a hallmark of this special Island. Membership dues and donations help the trust purchase lands; volunteers help to maintain the properties by removing exotic vegetation, planting native species, creating trails and more. Donations and bequests help the Trust purchase properties and they often partner with 20/20 and other groups to purchase important parcels on the Island. The lands aren’t always expensive to buy, but they can be expensive to keep up and so the willingness of the Trust to take over stewardship of properties gives added support to parcels under consideration by the 20/20 program.

According to Ed Chapin, the Trust’s Chief Land Steward and Ranger, the Trust is today the steward for 2,100 acres on the Island worth more than $3 million. (To see a map of the Island’s preserved areas, please visit the Calusa Land Trust website at calusalandtrust.org.)

To me, that just speaks volumes about the importance that many Island residents place on protecting and preserving the natural habitats of the Island and we should all celebrate the Calusa Land Trust’s 40th anniversary.

Join a Work Party

The Calusa Land Trust has work parties on the second Saturday of the month (except August). The next is scheduled for March 12. Volunteers interested in helping remove exotic vegetation will meet at 9 a.m. at the new Wigert-Barron Preserve at Barrancas and Aura Lane (near the county boat ramp). Bring your own hand tools and be sure to dress appropriately — long sleeves, long pants and closed-toed shoes are recommended. Bring water to drink and don’t forget your sunscreen and a hat. The workday lasts until about noon.

For more information, please call Ed Chapin, the Calusa Land Trust’s Chief Land Steward and Ranger, at 239-218-7531.

Impact Fees

Impact fees for new construction have been in the news a lot this year, with Lee County commissioners deciding whether to restore fees to pre-recession rates.

This is a topic I get asked about regularly, so I thought I’d offer some basic information on those fees this month, especially for visitors from outside the state who might not be familiar with the concept.

Impact fees are fees charged to new construction — both residential and commercial. The money raised is then used to pay for capital improvements needed to support a growing population.

The fees support several key things that are important to any community — especially communities in fast-growing Southwest Florida: Emergency services and fire stations, new schools, roads and sidewalks and parks. The impact fee on new construction varies, depending on the location you are building in and the type of structure you are building.

On unincorporated Pine Island, our fees are generally less than other areas because of our rural nature and limited commercial development, which means that we don’t need a lot of infrastructure out here. But impact fees still apply and a portion of our fees is used to deal with growth and development here and the remainder supports capital improvements to deal with growth countywide. A good example of something supported by impact fees is the bike path that runs the length of our 17-mile Island. While impact fees did not pay the entire cost for the path, they were essential in making it a reality.

In 2013, Lee commissioners had reduced impact fees by 80 percent to help spur growth in light of the recession; now, with development once again speeding up in and the overall economy improving, commissioners voted in February to raise fees.

Currently, the impact fee to build a new single family home on Pine Island and Matlacha is $6,029. On June 2, the fees will increase to $6,315. Impact fees for commercial construction have already increased and are running $2,700 per thousand square feet for office space and $4,180 per thousand square feet for retail space.

As the economy improves in the coming years, it’s likely that fees will only increase. That means if you’ve been considering building a new home on the Island, there’s no time like the present.

First, you’ll need to purchase your lot. Island properties are very reasonable right now and prices haven’t yet returned to pre-recession amounts, but we are seeing increases. Right now, 75-by-135-foot lots are going for $7,000 to $12,000; 80-by-180-foot lots are in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $20,000. Larger lots an acre or so are going for $20,000 to $40,000 and 2.5 acres are selling for $50,000 to $100,000. Waterfront lots can be priced considerably higher.

By filing your building plans and paying your fees before June 2, you’ll be able to lock in your impact fees at the current rates — even if you don’t actually start building until months later. If you plan to build a new Island home, it should definitely be more cost effective to build now than a year or two from now.


Baseball on the island

With springtime here, it’s nice to see the Pine Island kids taking the field in Phillips Community Park again. As a baseball fan and former college player myself, I’m always grateful that the community worked together to provide such a great place for the local kids — including my own — to play ball.

It really was a community effort that helped bring the ball fields about. Interestingly, it started with a conversation between local dentist Dr. Markus Sherry and a Lee County Sheriffs Deputy back in 1980. The two got to talking, and Dr. Sherry asked the deputy what the kids on the island were doing. The deputy made an off-hand remark, noting that there were few activities on the island and some of the kids were getting into trouble by age 12.

Well, Dr. Sherry didn’t think that was very cool, so he and a few other residents, including Bob Vogenberger and Mike Frank, sought to change that by bringing Little League to the island.

First, though, they needed a place for a ball field. That’s where Tom Phillips came in. Tom actually developed many areas of the island, including digging the canals in St. James City and developing Cherry Estates, Pine Island Center, the alphabet streets (also known as Tom’s Town) and many other areas.

Tom donated the land for the Park, which was dedicated in his memory, and the group worked with the county to get the ball fields up and running. Just three or four months later, Pine Island had its Little League — one of the first Little League charters to include girls. That first season, in the spring of 1981, there were about 60 kids — enough for five teams — and they played day games. There was one field, no electricity and no buildings.

By wintertime, the organizers realized that the teams needed to play later in the day — it was just too hot to have the kids out there in the blazing mid-afternoon sun. So we petitioned the county for lights on the field. They would put the lights in — if we could come up with the money to pay for it.

Once again, the community stepped up to the plate. We sold sponsorships on the fences, and then one generous resident donor pitched in with a $15,000 donation. By the winter season, we had our lights and a real community event that island families could participate in. The Pine Island Eagle covered the games and island veterinarian Dr. Warren Compton even modified a CB radio so that he could call games from behind the plate.

I started coaching in 1982 — glad to participate in the only organized sport for the island kids. For my kids and so many other families, Little League offered an opportunity to have fun and get to know each other. And, of course, it kept us all out of trouble! In 1998, we added a second field, and today, I think it’s one of the nicest ballparks in the county.

What’s most fun for me now is to see that the kids we coached back then have grown up and are bringing their own kids to Little League — like Shane Dooley (of Dooley Charters) who brings his son Dalton, and Billy Gay, who now serves as the League President and whose kids Joey and Robby now play. Our newest Realtor in the office, Erin Lambert, is also carrying on the tradition with her husband, John, coaching T-ball and their son, JP — though he’s a little too young to play this year — looking forward to his own at-bats.

Pine Island Little League is always in need of community support and volunteers to do everything from coaching and umpiring to handling concessions. (I’m sure sponsorships and donations are also welcome!) If you’re interested in helping out, please contact President Billy Gay at 478-6251.