Friday, January 20, 2006

Growth Issues Huge For Hendry County

LABELLE, FL. -- "Growth issues are huge for Hendry county," so says Hendry
county commissioner Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy, an engineer and Clewiston's
Utilities Director was at the Laurel Oaks Property Owners Association's
annual meeting Thursday night. He is probably the only county commissioner
in Florida with a politically jerry-mandered district that is about one-half
mile wide by 30 miles long, stretching from Clewiston to Port LaBelle.

McCarthy answered questions from the residents of the up-scale community in
Port LaBelle's Laurel Oaks subdivision, where out-of-town developers have
bought most of the vacant land surrounding Laurel Oaks. What used to be a
27- hole golf course around the subdivision is now open land whose various
new owners are counting on a change in zoning through Tallahassee and Hendry
County to allow high-density residential and commercial use on the now
rolling hills , lakes, mature palms, fruit, and oak trees.

McCarthy, born and raised in Clewiston said he doesn't want to see 250,000
people living in Hendry county which now has less than 40,000 population,
but thinks big growth is going to be unstoppable. Local LaBelle residents
have formed an action group to try to get the county to purchase the former
golf course land and return it back to a public golf and recreation area.
McCarthy says the Clewiston golf course is subsidized by the city of
Clewiston by about $300,000 a year. LaBelle's two other county commissioners
Bill Maddox and Darrell Harris have seemed against, or at least lukewarm to
the idea of a county owned golf facility, even though golf industry experts
say it would likely be a money-maker for the county as well as a draw for
tourist dollars.

Jack Zorn, an organizer of the group promoting the golf and recreation plan,
said that the developer's plans for high density use on the acreage west and
north of Laurel Oaks would overwhelm the infrastructure of the rural area,
bring the possibility of 3500 people living within one square mile, in
contrast to the city of LaBelle's current four square miles where only about
4200 people now live. Zorn, formerly in agricultural chemical sales, was
also concerned about any possible adverse environmental effects of turning
up the ground of the former golf course where turf chemicals were applied
for 20 years. Some observers say there is a possibility that the rezoning of
the current recreational use and agriculural use may be denied at the state
level for reasons of the county's master plan, for which the state requires
so many acres of land to be available and zoned for recreation.

The out-of-town new owner of the Port LaBelle Inn, sitting just west of
Laurel Oaks has claimed that he would like to expand his current 50 rooms to
170 rooms with a new restaurant. Whether that will happen is a matter of
conjecture since traditionally, new business owners tend to have high hopes
for their new purchase, and the "expansion publicity" helps to gain
investors and bank loans. The owner put down about $1 million and financed
$3 million with the previous owner.

McCarthy lays some of the blame on some local growth problems with previous
building permits issued by former Building Director Easton Burchard, who he
says may have not always used proper procedures in issuing new construction
permits. Questions have arisen over the use of agriculture land owed by CHL,
Inc. in building three model display homes on SR80 west of Birchwood Blvd.
and how those building permits were issued. CHL now has, after the fact,
asked the local planning agency and county commissioners for a "special
exception" for its already built model homes and wants to build three more.
Also cited as examples of poor building department calls were several
businesses issued permits to operate out of mobile homes in the Clewiston
area. Easton Burchard retired recently after many years as chief building
official in Hendry county.

Across the street from the hotel, the Miami owners are now building 100 new
boat slips around the two lagoons and there are possible plans for 480 condo
units along the river, said Zorn. The building permits were set to expire
which may explain part of the decision to go with such a large project now
nothwithstanding only one access road into the marina and hotel complex
from SR80. The owners have had for several years and currently have the
property for sale and probably also hope that the additional boat slips may
help sell the marina property. They also are trying to sell the office
building at the corner of Birchwood and SR80 which has been vacant for many

Building is coming to Hendry county. It's just a question of when, and the
questions of how responsible will local government be in reacting to
developers' wishes for quick decisions.

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