2015 has not been a good year for the Florida Panther. Already one of the most critically endangered species in the world, the small group of big cats still clinging to survival in our state has slowly clawing its way back since its nadir in the 1970s, when only 20 adult panthers were thought to have remained in the wild.
Conservation efforts have brought the species back to a degree, with numbers estimated to be around 100 to 160 in the wild in recent years, but is still vulnerable, with much of its territory overlapping with human development and traffic.
Tragically, this past year saw a record number of panther deaths caused by traffic. As of the week of Christmas, 40 panther deaths were recorded throughout 2015, with 29 of those deaths being a result of collisions with vehicles. The latest death was on December 21st, when a one-year-old male panther was struck by a car in Collier County.
These numbers have not gone unnoticed on the federal level, as Vern Buchanan, the U.S. Representative of Florida’s 16th district, has asked that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to set aside land that can serve as critical habitat for the species.
“Each year, the Florida panther population continues to shrink in size as more big cats are hit and killed by cars because they lack a safe habitat,” Buchanan said. “Although these panthers are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, they face extinction because they have no protected area to live and repopulate. We should not stand by and do nothing as yet another endangered species is wiped off the earth. We don’t get a second chance once a species becomes extinct.”
Earlier in December, Buchanan joined with several other of the State’s U.S. Representatives in order to produce a letter asking President Barack Obama for further protections for the endangered cat.
“The Florida panther is one of the most endangered species in the world as less than 180 of them survive today,” the letter read. “As you know, the two greatest threats to the Florida panther are the loss of habitat and automobile-related deaths, both of which are caused by increased development in environmentally sensitive areas. The best available science suggests that current lands in conservation do not provide enough suitable habitat area to support even the limited number of existing panthers. Further, on November 28th, two more panthers were killed by cars.
“As members of the Florida delegation, we are writing to request your support in establishing a critical habitat designation for the endangered Florida panther,” it continued. “The Florida panther was listed as an endangered species in 1973, but critical habitat has never been established, even though the Endangered Species Act includes a requirement for the designation of critical habitat for endangered species. In other words, the Florida panther is protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, unfortunately its home is not.
“It is of great importance to designate a critical habitat not only because it would preserve and encourage the growth of the current population of Florida panthers, but also because it would help to protect other valuable environmental resources, such as wetlands, aquifer-recharge areas, drinking water supplies and the habitat of other endangered species. At the top of the food chain, Florida panthers help keep feral hog numbers in check and deer, raccoon and other prey populations balanced and healthy. Moreover, a designation of critical habitat does not mean that no further development is allowed in an area, it simply requires additional review when projects requiring federal permits would impact habitats considered essential to preventing the Florida panther from going extinct.
“We urge you to ensure the continued existence of the Florida panther and the preservation of Southwest Florida’s natural resources and unique character by supporting the designation of critical habitat for the endangered Florida panther,” the letter concluded. “Thank you for your time and consideration. The decision to take action now will provide a historic opportunity for protecting the Earth’s most endangered ‘umbrella species’ – the Florida panther.”
For all of its triumphs and tumult, 2015 will be a year of potentially far reaching impacts on the years to come, both globally and locally. From voter discontent fueling the rise of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, to radical fundamentalists with eyes on monolithic societies spilling their hatred and intolerance into the melting pots of the west, many of the threads that made up the past year still continue to the cusp of 2016 and beyond. The upcoming presidential election is still up in the air, as the often predicted demise of Trump’s campaign now looks like the wishful thinking of the kingmakers and political insiders.
However, many major local events of the past year will also remain prominent into the New Year, with home rule of municipalities on trial in several different arenas throughout Lee County.
The most obvious example of this is the tribulations arising from several Florida cities passing fracking bans this past year, in the face of opposition from the state. Taking the lead was Bonita Springs, where the issue dominated their summer sessions. What brought the matter to the forefront was when citizens began to fear that Collier Resources was going to use the controversial process of Hydraulic fracturing on undeveloped land within their city’s limits to get at gas & oil beneath the surface.
This led to action by the Bonita Springs Council to head the company off at the pass, voting unanimously to approve an ordinance this past July that would ban fracking. And while many of the citizens present at the vote were jubilant at the vote, applauding the Council vigorously for their action, it did not take long for state-level players to show their hand.
In September, before summer had ended, State Representative Ray Rodrigues introduced HB 191, a bill pertaining to the Regulation of Oil and Gas Resources. I previous version of the bill had died in the Florida Legislature when their spring session abruptly ended over a health care showdown between the House and the Senate.
A key difference between 191 and its previous iterations was far strongly language when it came to dealing with home rule decisions concerning oil extraction techniques. The brief of the bill read “Preempts regulation of all matters relating to exploration, development, production, processing, storage, & transportation of oil & gas; declares existing ordinances & regulations relating thereto void;” which seemed aimed at municipalities exercising their own laws in order to decide what extraction would be allowed within their jurisdictions.
“The state already retains the authority for regulation,” Rodrigues told the Sun Bay Paper this past September. “Counties and municipalities do not have the authority to grant or deny permitting in this area.”
Since its introduction to committees, the response from many cities, including Bonita Springs, has been strong. As such, Rodrigues and the Legislature has been working with the Florida League of Cities to amend some language in the bill, but it remains to be seen if these changes have any tempering effect on the initial aim of 191.
The Bill will most likely come to the floor of the Legislature sometime after their new session begins in January, and unless the session collapses unexpectedly like it did the year before, a fight could be brewing between Florida and its individual cities.
In the shadow of this bill, Estero also passed a fracking ban to close out the year, making what is perhaps the biggest decision of the Village’s young life. It was a unanimous decision by the elected body that once again came to great public approval, with numerous residents from Estero, Bonita Springs, and Naples taking the podium to voice their support for the ban.
The decision came in the wake of the Council getting multiple perspectives on the matter from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, who were opposed to the practice due to the many dangers it potentially poses to the local fresh water supply, and Ray Rodrigues, who gave a presentation at a November work session in defense of his bill.
Ultimately, the Council was moved by the environmental concerns, and now stand with Bonita Springs as a municipality that is waiting to see how much its home rule is valued by the State government.
It’s an impressive situation to be in, considering that the Estero Council is still in its freshman year, and that the Village itself only incorporated a year ago, with the November 2014 vote becoming official on December 31st of that same year. The Council didn’t convene for their first meeting until the following March, in front of an auditorium packed with dignitaries from around Lee County at Estero High School.
Fracking is not the only outstanding issue that Estero will deal with heading into the New Year. The Village tapped city planner Bill Spikowski to draw up a land-use plan going forward, and it was unveiled on a conceptual level back in August. Centered on establishing a Village Center for the new municipality, it emphasized a lot of mixed use zoning. Developers operating in Estero turned out in force at the Estero Planning and Zoning Board meeting where it was revealed, where they objected strongly to the plan en masse, drowning out the voices of the residents attending the meeting. Among the top points they pushed against were the mixed-use zones, with several developers saying that it would saturate the Village with commercial property.
The future direction the land-use plan will take is currently unknown, and what shape it could eventually take is a subject of great interest for 2016.
Development is also a hot topic in Fort Myers Beach, as the end of the year saw the public presentation of conceptual plans for Grand Resorts, a proposed $250 million project aimed at the foot of the Matanzas Pass Bridge heading into the Town itself. Consisting of four planned hotels, the tallest of which would reach 7 stories in height, as well as a convention center, shops, and a large parking garage, the project would reshape FMB’s northern commercial area, with a shift of Estero Boulevard itself included in the plans. Part of that shift would have the inclusion of a roundabout in place of a traffic light.
Needless to say, the reaction to the project has been mixed, and a public viewing of the plans held at Chapel by the Sea on the Beach a few weeks ago was met with rounds of jeers from the standing room only crowd. Of prime concern to many Beach residents was the variances the project was asking for in regards to height restrictions in FMB’s Comprehensive Plan. It allows only for three stories for new buildings, and all the hotels and the parking garage exceed that limit at the moment.
Concept plans show the parking garage only would alter the views of those living and working on Crescent Street, and many have expressed concerns about the traffic that increased density would bring to the area. Still, others feel it’s a proposal that will bring money to an area that has been losing businesses over the last few years, and see as an opportunity for revitalization.
One point that will surely be contested is the Grand Resorts proposed seawall, which will frame its boardwalk and keep the buildings at ground level. Experts have already chimed in, warning that such a hard structure being placed on the beach will accelerate erosion, causing a need for additional nourishment at a more frequent rate, as it would interrupt the beach’s natural ability to replenish itself by trapping upland sand.
No official Town or County Government meetings have taken place to address this project as of yet, so 2016 is poised to be a year that will shape the future look of Fort Myers Beach.
Changes are already underway in that Town’s primary thoroughfare, as Construction crews started digging up Estero Boulevard in the summer in order to replace an aging water utility infrastructure running below the street for the length of the island. A multi-year project, ReFresh Estero Boulevard looks to update the water system one section of the island at a time, following it up with an overhaul of the Boulevard itself, redoing the surface of the travel and turn lanes, while also adding improved trolley stops and contiguous sidewalks on both sides of the road to improve safety for motorists and pedestrians.
This year was merely the first step of a project that will take the better part of a decade to complete. Segment one of the project stretches from the foot of the Matanzas Pass Bridge out past Seagrape Plaza at Lover’s Lane. Construction of the road portion of this project is set to be complete at the end of 2016.
Further up the road, on the main land, a brand new Walmart opened up this past November on the site where the then empty Summerlin Square once stood. Following a breakneck construction schedule that lasted from Spring until the Fall, the new store has brought back commerce to an area that had been derelict for years after a constructed fly-over altered traffic patterns. How much of a kick-start it will be to the area will be seen over the next few months, as several empty properties remain in the area, ready to be reoccupied.
Estero Boulevard wasn’t the only road to see major construction this year, as Bonita Springs started renovating Old U.S. 41 in the Fall of this year as part of their Downtown Improvements Project. Much like Estero Boulevard, the work is aimed at improving utilities around and under the road, including storm drainage. It will also put in roundabouts and streetscaping to beautify the historic Downtown district,. It preceding long-term plans by the city to transform the Old U.S. 41 corridor into a major mixed use district.
Moving away from the local news, there are major events brewing at the state level that could impact the lives of those living around Estero Bay in various ways. One of the big issues this year was discontent over the State’s use of Amendment One funding.
Amendment One was approved by voters in the Fall of 2014 with the intent to set aside money raised through real estate taxes for environmental purposes such as land acquisition. In the time since, though, many voters and environmental groups have accused the Florida Legislature of putting the funds into areas it was not intended for, such as equipment maintenance for the DEP and other departments. Of the over $750 million raised for the trust fund that was set up by the amendment, just over $55 million went towards land acquisition.
This led to several environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Florida Wildlife Federation filing a lawsuit against the state to contend this usage of the funds. Early December saw a circuit judge from Leon County, George Reynolds, accept a motion by the state to dismiss a portion of the lawsuit that wanted a court order to demand Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to transfer over $230 million from the state’s general-revenue fund to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund set up by the Amendment. However, the rest of the lawsuit filed by these groups will continue, and could shape the direction of Environmental policies that effect Lake Okeechobee, its estuaries, and the Everglades in the years to come.
Finally, going from natural resources to man-made borders, the potential end to the electoral map controversy that has embroiled the Sunshine State these past few years might be within sight. December saw the state’s Supreme Court rule in favor of a Congressional district map created by a coalition of citizen’s groups that had contended that Legislature-drawn maps were in violation of a “fair districts” amendment that voters had approved back in 2010. Their contention was that the districts drawn by the governing body showed clear bias towards political parties, and that those boundaries were made without regard to communities and municipalities they bisected.
The decision by the Court could result in a massive shift in the make-up of Florida’s congressional delegation, which currently favors Republicans with 17 seats to the Democrats’ 10.
A court decision on a map for State Senate seats waits in the wings, and it won’t be until elections take place in 2016 that the effects of this decision can be truly measured. Early predicators still think Republicans will retain a majority, but at much narrower margins that more closely aligned with near 50-50 split between the two major parties we’ve seen in the recent presidential elections.
Of course one of the biggest stories to hit Florida happened at the very start of the year, when gay marriage was legally recognized within the state beginning on January 6th. This was a result of a stay expiring on the U.S. District Court decision of Brenner v. Scott, where the court ruled on August 21st 2014 that the State’s 1977 same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional. Later in the year, the U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges legalized gay marriage throughout the United States when the Justices found in a 5-4 decision that the 14th Amendment made marriage a fundamental right under its Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.
In all, 2015 was packed with events and decisions that can change the face of our corner of Florida for years to come, and 2016 will be interesting not only to see how those changes come to pass, but also for what new wrinkles it will add.
By Trent Townsend