December 21, 2014

Development

On the Fly

A resurging eagle population is forcing developers to change their plans.

Amy Keller | 12/1/2005
In 2000, Vanderbilt Partners planned to build a high-rise condominium complex on 532 acres near Wiggins Pass in north Naples. But the parcel was home to an active eagle's nest, and the planned development was in the middle of a "primary protection zone," a 750-foot off-limits boundary spelled out in the Endangered Species Act. Construction on Cocohatchee Bay could not begin until the two birds found a new home, the Collier County Commission ruled.

Five years later, the developers of Cocohatchee Bay are still waiting for the birds to relocate. The county has rejected Vanderbilt's offer to construct a $250,000 fake nest tree for the eagles in an adjacent area, and the developers, who say they are losing between $8 million and $12 million every year of delay, have sued the county.

BIRD OF DELAY: The bald eagle -- Lynda White of the Audubon Society holds one -- has stalled Vanderbilt Partners' plans in Naples.Once endangered, bald eagles have been downgraded to a "threatened" species and are enjoying a resurgence in Florida. With 2,000 bald eagles and 700 nesting pairs, the state is the largest eagle breeding ground in the country outside of Alaska.

"It's very much a gauntlet these days," says Terrey Dolan, director of environmental services for WCI Communities. WCI's efforts to build out the Baywinds section of a gated community known as Pelican Landing came to a halt last December after two eagles built a nest on the developer's site. But Dolan says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is using common sense by reviewing each development plan on a case-by-case basis. "The FWS came back with a biological opinion and said we can develop up to 100 feet away, but not closer than that to the nest tree," says Dolan, but WCI has offered to keep its construction at least 200 feet from the nest to satisfy local officials.

Environmentalists aren't satisfied. "They want to put 50 units in the primary zone. They can put them elsewhere," says Brad Cornell, who works for the Collier County Audubon Society and Audubon of Florida.

Nicole Ryan, environmental policy coordinator for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, blames the federal government for not doing enough to enforce the laws. Ryan says the FWS has become "lax" in enforcing the Endangered Species Act.

Other builders, meanwhile, are pursuing innovative strategies to keep their projects on schedule. Ed Oelschlaeger, a Tampa developer and president of EcoGroup, says his company is going the extra mile to ensure the safety of the two eagles at Wiggins Pass. His Aqua luxury condo development is 830 feet away from the nest, but he has teamed up with the Audubon Society to implement a "bald eagle management plan" that includes monitoring the birds with two "eagle cams." The company also paid for an Audubon presentation featuring a live bald eagle to help educate the construction crews.

Tags: Southwest, Environment

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