Sprawl Hurts Us All

By: Susan Allen

Why should anyone lose sleep over what happens in little Alva, Florida, or any other rural area?  For many, Florida’s planned communities offer the seemingly perfect lifestyle with their protective gates, golf courses and clubhouses.  But once outside the cloistered existence, we begin to see the devastating effects of Sprawl.

 I was born in Washington, D. C., but grew up in a distant city suburb. I rode horses, climbed trees, built forts and played with neighborhood friends.   Evenings were filled with the sounds of whippoorwills and bobwhites calling their mates.  Coveys of quail frequented my back yard and it was not unusual to see deer grazing in our yard. When we got sick, our pediatrician would make a house call or we were seen in his office without delay.  The treatment was usually a prescription of a ghastly green concoction, which was mostly alcohol, but it always worked.   No one waited for weeks to see their doctor or was forced to go to urgent care or an ER for minor health issues. Teachers had time for their students and crime was something one only saw on the evening news. Life wasn’t perfect, but we all knew we were living the American Dream.  Now, the sound of whippoorwills is only a memory, our forts and treehouses have been bulldozed over and replaced with tightly packed subdivisions. With time, our community expanded, neighborhoods became more restrictive, and children could no longer stray far from their own backyards. Hometowns became a thing of the past, replaced with condos, duplexes and houses on tiny lots. Children once played outdoors, interacted with and appreciated nature.  Now they sequester themselves in their rooms with their designer sheets and handheld devices, rarely speaking face to face with their fellow humans, let alone their parents. The sense of community is gone with the cows, horses, forests and fields. It may be time to bring it all back or, at the very least, reign in the sprawl.

Florida has suffered a similar fate. Lee County’s rural community of Alva faces off with aggressive developers and complacent County Commissioners who are perpetuating the problem of irresponsible over-development. Alva has become a microcosm of the issues that face us all in Lee County and much of the nation.  What are now pristine fields, pastures and precious (and increasingly rare) habitats in rural Alva have been slated for a massive development by Neal Communities.   The proposed subdivision would nearly triple the existing population of the area. The housing density of one dwelling unit per acre dictated by the county plan has been promoted by the Board of County Commissioner and large developers to increase the density to 1.39 dwellings per acre to include over 1000 homes on 738 acres consisting of duplexes and houses on 30-40 foot-wide lots.  This represents a disregard for the community plan that was so thoughtfully created by those impacted.  The property is currently a combination of woods, pasture, wetlands and critical habitat. It is home to protected and endangered wildlife, with recent sightings of panther, caracara, spoonbills and gopher tortoise.  Some of these species are considered to be keystone species as they support and are necessary to the existence of other species. While, as a whole, the community of Alva is not opposed to development, it is opposed to the devastating effect of high-density housing and the corresponding population surge that will destroy our rural feel and collapse our infrastructure. The neighboring property (owned by our Lee County Commission Mike Greenwell) has already been approved for 400,000 SF of commercial space to include a big Box store and apartments.  Such development will compound the existing problems involving the wildlife corridor, availability of timely healthcare, emergency services, traffic, teacher shortages and the affected quality of our rivers and beaches. Developers who live elsewhere dump their houses and retreat to their neighborhoods, leaving the consequences of overdevelopment behind.

On a daily basis, the impact of Sprawl manifests itself as endless hours stuck in traffic. Add seasonal snowbirds and visitors to the mix and paradise starts to feel like The Hunger Games.  Gridlock is a symptom of a serious issue and is directly population-driven.  If a patient is bleeding to death, you don’t jump in and wash his sheets, you stop the bleeding. The carte blanche approval of proposed large high-density development, compounded by the lack of infrastructure, is the underlying pathology we all have to deal with. It’s a disease that needs treatment and the prescription lies with our Lee Board of County Commissioners.  The ill effects of worsening traffic aren’t simply an inconvenience. Our very health is also at risk.

 When was the last time you could see a doctor promptly?  An acute illness or injury may have to wait days, weeks or months for treatment.  This forces many patients to seek care at an urgent care center, which often refers them back to their primary care physician, thus creating a Catch-22 situation. Worse, patients flood our ERs with non-emergency cases, thus delaying critical services and causing prolonged wait times. Why? It boils down to poor planning!  According to the Florida Medical Association, a report from IHS Markit, commissioned by the Florida Safety Net Hospital Alliance and the Florida Hospital Association, projects a shortfall of 17,924 physicians in the Sunshine State by 2035. This analysis is based on projected supply and demand, accounting for Florida’s population growth. The greatest shortages in Lee County are in Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres and Fort Myers.  Emergency services are struggling to keep up with demand as well due to increasing numbers of patients and an aging population that requires greater levels of care.  The Lee County Staff Report states,” Lee County CAN NOT yet sufficiently serve the entirety of the subject property within the “established response time threshold”.  

If your child is healthy enough to attend and can get to school with an already overtaxed bus system, there may not be a desk or a teacher waiting for him when he arrives. Lee County is facing a severe shortage of teachers and classrooms.  According to Lee County School Board representative Armor Person, Riverdale High School has no room to add more seats for the expected 2,000-3,000 new students coming into the area thanks to the expansion of Babcock Ranch and the proposed Neal Communities projects near Alva.  So despite the lack of student space, teachers, doctors and emergency services, our County Commissioners continue to approve the unchecked growth of Lee County.

Local elections are increasingly important as the tie between local government and developers has become an unholy union.  Lee County Commissioners and land developers are stuck together like conjoined twins.  Neither makes a move without the other. Our District 5 commissioner, Mike Greenwell, had his own land rezoned after taking office.  Many believe this to be a conflict of interest and a blatant move to profit from his elected position personally.  In the meantime, irresponsible development degrades every aspect of our quality of life. Who are our elected officials beholding to? Is it their constituents, or is it the developers?  The recent fight over building heights on Captiva demonstrates the answer. Despite overwhelming local opposition to tall and high-density buildings on Captiva, the public petition with over 13,000 signatures was ignored in favor of the developers.

We have been told development for development’s sake is beneficial. They call it “growth,” but in truth, unbridled development hurts us all. At some point, we must hit the pause button and make strategic decisions about how we want our communities to look and function. Our responsibility is to elect honest and responsible leaders and hold our state and local officials accountable for poor management. Our commissioners must stop green-lighting developers and the exponential growth masked in their shiny plans and slick pandering.  These projects are planned, approved, and forwarded through our county politics without regard to infrastructure and the effect on the community. More importantly our officials are tone deaf to the voice of the constituents they have sworn to represent.

So what’s the fix?  First, learn the reputation, background, and track record of each candidate for county commissioner.  Second, vote in your party’s primary. Good elections start with good candidates. Ask yourself who will listen to their constituents and live under the same rules as those he/she represents.  Just because a candidate has achieved fame in the past, it does mean he will make a good leader.  Get involved and attend local government meetings.  You may be shocked at what you experience.

Ultimately, we all need to take note of little rural Alva, Florida and come to her aid.  Our Lee County Board of Commissioners tentatively plans to meet on January 17th to vote on the transmittal of CPA 2022, which will amend the county plan to bring public water and sewer to over 1000 acres of rural land.  Go to leegov.com for up-to-date information. Let this be your Call to Action. It’s time for all of us in Lee County to let our County Commissioners know that SPRAWL HURTS US ALL.


Susan Allen is an Alva resident and the Secretary for ALVA STRONG, whose mission is to unite the region to protect the rural character of Alva, Florida. To preserve the past, influence the future, and enjoy Florida’s Natural state. www.alvastong.org

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