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Sidewalk Issue Sparks Discussion of Ave Maria's Direction at Planning Commission Hearing

Two members of the Collier County Planning Commission expressed reservations Thursday about a potential loss of the "unique character" of Ave Maria and other communities developed under provisions of the county's Rural Land Stewardship Area.

The concerns were voiced at a commission hearing on proposed changes town developers are seeking to the county's Land Development Code, one of which would potentially make it easier for developers to have sidewalks on only one side of a street. The sidewalk issue has cropped up in numerous hearings involving various communities and Commission Chairman Mark Strain said he was reluctant to make decisions on it until the commission can hold a "walkability workshop" in the summer.

"The sidewalk issue is sensitive until we get a better handle on it," he said.

This is the second time Ave Maria developers have proposed an option to build sidewalks on only one side of the street in some neighborhoods. The proposal was part of a package of changes the county considered last fall but it was withdrawn after pushback from the commission as well as many Ave Maria residents.

At Thursday's hearing, the sidewalk issue sparked further discussion about preserving the character of rural towns when developers said that changes they were requesting were modeled on provisions of the county's regulations for Planned Use Developments (PUDs), which are typically large-scale developments within more built-up areas.

Ave Maria was developed under a different set of regulations governing a new type of rural land use known as a Stewardship Receiving Area (SRA).

"We have to be careful when looking at this," said Commissioner Charlette Roman. "Are we in fact making an SRA like a PUD such that the vision of an SRA is lost?"

Commission Chairman Mark Strain expressed similar reservations. "If it's so different from what we've always done, the standard PUDs in the county, why do we have the [Rural Land Stewardship Area] program?" he asked. "Because right now, what I'm seeing, it's just mass production, more density. I don't see the uniqueness that was called out for when the town was first told to us. I don't want to see that deviate any further. I don't want to see things taken away that were the basis under which we assumed what this new concept was going to be. And I'm worried that we're going astray here."

Other proposed changes were less contentious. There was agreement to scrap a provision that there be five-year reviews of the fiscal impact of Ave Maria, in part because the county has not yet come up with a model that it finds suitable to adequately gauge whether or not new communities like Ave Maria are a net contributor or a net drain on the county's budget.

Commissioners also welcomed the developer's proposal – which was promised at the hearing in the fall – to hold Neighborhood Information Meetings on any proposed changes affecting residents of Ave Maria.

Mr. Strain noted at the end of discussion on the topic, however, that he was surprised to learn when he called local attorney Robb Klucik earlier in the week that although the developer was committing to having Neighborhood Information Meetings, no effort was made to discuss the changes proposed at Thursday's meeting with residents in advance.

"in the future, it would be more productive and useful if you went out to the community for input," he told the developer's lawyer, Richard Yovanovich. "I would hope that somehow, to reach out to stakeholders would have been a good thing to do."

No vote was taken Thursday on the proposed changes. Following the discussion, portions will be redrafted and presented for further discussion at the commission's next hearing June 4. The planning commission's recommendations will then be sent to the Collier County Commission for further action.

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