The legal fight between a Collier County landowner and an environmental group over a controversial proposed rural village is expected to be back in the spotlight next month with a pair of hearings that could impact the case’s trajectory.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida sued the county in March over commissioners’ January approval of Rivergrass Village, a proposed 1,000-acre village along Oil Well Road, east of Golden Gate Estates.
The lawsuit contends that the planned village, which would sit in the county’s 185,000-acre Rural Lands Stewardship Area, is inconsistent with the county’s growth management plan.
Tomatoes grow in an agricultural field on the proposed site of Rivergrass Village near Oil Well Road on Monday, January 20, 2020. (Photo: Alex Driehaus/Naples Daily News/USA TODAY – FLORIDA NETWORK)
The RLSA provides for a voluntary program that allows developers to build towns and villages in areas with lower conservation value, in exchange for preserving more environmentally sensitive land.
More: Collier Enterprises joins county’s side in Conservancy’s Rivergrass Village lawsuit
Last week, Collier Enterprises — the company that is behind the project and joined the county’s side in the lawsuit this spring — filed a pair of motions asking the judge to render a summary judgment in the case.
If the judge were to decide in the company’s favor it could mean the case is dismissed though the Conservancy could still appeal to a higher court.
“Because Plaintiff lacked standing to bring this action at the time the Complaint was filed, summary judgment should be granted in favor of Collier Enterprises Management, Inc. and this action should be dismissed with prejudice,” lawyers for the company wrote in the Nov. 11 motion.
To have standing, a plaintiff has to establish that its interests “exceed in degree the general interest in community good shared by all persons,” according to the motion.
The company also argues that representatives for the Conservancy “admitted under oath that its alleged impacts from the proposed development of Rivergrass are indistinguishable from any other citizen of Collier County.”
“Plaintiff similarly conceded that it does not own property near Rivergrass, has never stepped foot on Rivergrass, and has not undertaken any specific analysis of the Rivergrass property to understand whether the proposed development actually poses a risk to any of its alleged interests,” the motion states.
In an emailed statement to the Naples Daily News Friday, Conservancy President and CEO Rob Moher said the “motions for summary judgment are without merit” and that his organization “will respond appropriately in due course.”
“As stated in our Amended Complaint and other materials, the Rivergrass Village development fails to comply with Collier County land use law; will cost the taxpayers of our County millions of dollars; and never should have been approved,” the statement continued.
County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow and representatives for Collier Enterprises declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Collier Enterprises’ lawyers also argued in the motion that the Conservancy “has not demonstrated Rivergrass is likely to injure wildlife or environmental resources.”
More: Collier Commission votes 3-2 to approve Rivergrass Village east of Golden Gate Estates
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The motion, which extensively cites from depositions of Conservancy representatives, also states that the environmental group “has expressly disclaimed any interest in the Florida panther as it pertains to this litigation.”
“Those panther specific concerns are not part of the amended litigation or the amended suit,” Nicole Johnson, director of environmental policy for the Conservancy, said in her deposition.
The Conservancy had previously argued in interviews, opinion pieces and at hearings that the project would destroy hundreds of acres of prime panther habitat.
When asked in June why the lawsuit was amended to remove a section about panther habitat being destroyed by the development, the Conservancy said in a statement to the Naples Daily News that it was amended “because of the importance of protecting all native wildlife.”
“In addition, the Conservancy is continuing its efforts to protect the Florida Panther through its advocacy at the federal level,” that statement continued.
In its motion regarding standing, Collier Enterprises argued that the Conservancy has “no specific knowledge as to the potential risks to wildlife posed by Rivergrass.”
“In fact, Plaintiff admits it has not done ‘any sort of analysis of the expected injury to wildlife specific to the Rivergrass development,’ nor ‘identified any characteristics of Rivergrass that make it more or less likely for development to cause injury to wildlife,'” lawyers for the company wrote.
In a second motion for summary judgment regarding consistency with the adopted comprehensive plan, Collier Enterprises argued that the Conservancy “brought the wrong claims, in the wrong proceeding, and through the wrong vehicle.”
A virtual hearing on the first motion is scheduled for Dec. 17 before Collier Circuit Judge Lauren Brodie. A virtual hearing regarding the second motion is scheduled for Dec. 21.
Connect with the reporter at [email protected] or on Twitter @PatJRiley.
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