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County to settle lawsuit over annexation of Zemel property; Retains power to dispute land use

By Staff | May 28, 2008

All legal challenges to Cape Coral’s 2006 annexation of the Zemel property in the northern section of the city will soon be dropped as the Lee County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to sign off on a settlement that removes the final legal obstacle to the city bringing the land into its boundaries.

However, the agreement does leave open the possibility of the county disputing land use changes, meaning that the fight over the property’s future is far from over.

“That has been preserved and reserved by the county,” Lee County Attorney David Owen said of the commission’s right to challenge comprehensive plan changes. “The objective here today is to settle the issues as it relates to the annexation.”

“We’re not going to contest the annexation from a legal standpoint, so that is done,” Commissioner Tammy Hall added after the meeting. “But the county has the same concerns that it had prior to the settlement.”

Central to the county’s objections to potential development on the property, much of which sits in a preserve area and is currently designated as agricultural land, is the Cape’s proposal to place a mixed use land use on the area that allows 16 residential units per acre.

Hall said the county plans to keep a wary eye on the city’s plans.

“We’re going to be very sensitive to what kind of residential components as well as what kind of commercial and industrial purposes they will put there,” she said. “When you have 16 units per acre, what kind of commercial are you putting there?”

The county will likely not support heavy development of shopping centers and other retail areas on Zemel. Hall pointed out that the residential density component would indicate that the city is planning to do just that.

“You don’t need that kind of density for non-retail uses,” she said. “That raised a huge red flag for me.”

Prior to the annexation, city officials billed the parcel, which lies between U.S. 41 and Burnt Store Road, as a prime opportunity for major commercial and light industrial expansion. Staff and elected officials alike have bemoaned the city’s pre-platted nature because it makes land assemblage and development difficult, and called the Zemel land a prime opportunity to build large-scale developments on unplatted blocks.

In a Tuesday afternoon phone interview, Councilmember Tim Day said that the city plans on listening to the county and residents across the county about what should be developed on the Zemel lands, but added that the council would have the final say at the end of the day. He pressed for a developer to come in and build a large-scale project that would encompass commercial, professional, retail and residential space.

“It’s worked effectively in West Palm Beach, it has City Place and it has worked out great out there,” said Day.

Hall said the county plans to “hold (the city) to the commitment that they have made to the residents of the city of Cape Coral and North Fort Myers,” and would firmly back definitive plans to develop the newly annexed land in a fashion that would attract high paying jobs and ease the residential property tax burden.

“As a resident of Cape Coral myself, I certainly want to see a balanced economy,” she said.

Day wants the same thing, but pointed out that large-scale commercial development “does not mean there won’t be any residential out there.”