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Free university land could carry steep ecological price

Florida is about to put a new university in a swampy, roadless forest bordering the homeland of endangered panthers.

The new campus would be built in headwaters of a river flowing into a protected bay. The land was set aside for water conservation until the university accepted it for free from a developer who plans to build a town around it.

And it lies in the second-worst area for collisions between automobiles and panthers. Three panthers have been hit near the proposed university town. Only 30 to 50 of the cats exist statewide.

From a wildlife standpoint, "this is a bad site," said Darrell Land, a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission biologist who studies panthers.

But it was favored by "big, influential people," he said. "When you look at the final decision, they won out. Wildlife is kind of an afterthought."

The developer with the biggest stake is Ben Hill Griffin III, heir to a citrus and ranching empire, friend to Democrats and a major supporter of the state university system.

Griffin's company, Alico Inc., donated the campus site and owns 16 square miles of land around it. He proposes to build a University Village of 9,000 people.

To approve the university, two wildlife protection agencies had to reject their field offices' opinions of the site. One ignored its own report showing the university on land needed for the panther. Three government reports ranked other sites more suitable.

So why, out of all the land available in southwest Florida, is a university planned here?

"Sheer, brute political lobbying," said Thomas Reese, an environmental lawyer representing opponents of the site. "Ben Hill Griffin just went in and lobbied different people and said this is what we want. And he got it."

Griffin and university officials say the land was accepted because nobody could match the offer.

"Alico had the best site," Griffin said. "It had the greatest access to Interstate 75. It had a mile frontage on a 775-acre lake.

"We gave the prime to the great state of Florida to establish this university."

University president Roy McTarnaghan says the university's environmentally sensitive site offers an opportunity: to focus on environmental studies.

"Instead of saying, "Come to this university, I'll take you to my field study 50 miles away,'

" McTarnaghan said, "we're going to be right in the middle of it."

1997 is target date

University officials hope to break ground for the new Florida Gulf Coast University in January and open its doors in 1997.

Except for a branch campus, Florida's state universities are more than 100 miles from students in the fast-growing Fort Myers area. "It kind of takes the last desert in the state and brings the university oasis there," said Chancellor Charles Reed.

Lee County leaders can't wait for construction.

"We're tickled pink that we're getting the 10th state university here," said Marietta Mudgett, executive director of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. "It's just going to make our lives more wonderful."

When the Legislature created the new university in 1991, more than 20 landowners came forward with offers of free acres, scholarship funds and other inducements. A committee whittled the list to three: Omni Associates, Westinghouse Gateway and Alico.

To a traveler passing through Lee County on Interstate 75, the sites might look indistinguishable. All lie east of the highway, in a flat land of pines, palmettos and standing water.

To land planners and biologists, there were important differences.

The Omni site is within the city of Fort Myers and had been approved for commercial and industrial development. It has winding roads, street lights, ponds, even speed limit signs.

The Gateway site is on a huge tract Westinghouse is developing into a "planned community" of up to 25,000 people. It is outside Fort Myers, but in an area the city plans to annex.

Before the university came along, Alico's land was part of a large conservation zone Lee County created in 1989 to comply with Florida's growth management law. Nearly all of it was limited to one house per 10 acres, under the county land use plan.

Ben Hill Griffin III had different ideas. His company applied for permits to build a new city of 40,000 people. That plan has since been scaled back to the University Village concept: a community of 9,000.

Alico's site was favored by an advisory committee of local business and civic leaders appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Several state agencies, on the other hand, gave the Omni site higher marks. The Department of Community Affairs, which administers Florida's growth management law, ranked the Alico site worst because of wetlands problems, threat of urban sprawl and need for utilities and roads.

About two-fifths of the Alico site is wet, and surface water flowing across it empties five miles away in Estero Bay, a protected bird haven.

The state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission ranked the Omni site least harmful to wetlands and wildlife.

A joint report by the university Board of Regents and Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council rated Omni highest, followed by Westinghouse and Alico.

A regents committee threw the Omni site off the list, however, on the recommendation of chancellor Reed. He disliked its physical appearance, and he questioned the developer's ability to deliver a clear title.

"The Omni site was much more limited. It looked like it was going to be an industrial park,"Reed said.

That left two major landowners at the table.

The regents met in February 1992 to choose between them. Ultimately, they decided Alico's problems with the growth management law were less a concern than Westinghouse's proximity to a landfill.

Alico won, 8-4.

By accepting the offer, the university system got 760 acres of free land, an additional gift of 215 acres for an endowment fund, a $1.2-million fund for environmental studies and $1-million worth of fill materials.

Griffin got a $150,000 bonus from Alico.

Doughnut of land

On a map, the university site resembles a doughnut hole cut from Alico's land.

No roads enter it, and to walk through it now, "you'd need hip boots," said Jack Fenwick, the university's facilities director.

North of the campus site, Alico Road runs past a rock mine, whose excavation will become the university's 775-acre lake. To the south, Corkscrew Road runs toward Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a wildlife preserve.

Florida black bears, wood storks, bald eagles, Eastern indigo snakes and Big Cypress fox squirrels are among the protected animals known to frequent the area. The animal that has caused the most uproar is the panther.

Griffin calls it "ridiculous and absurd" to assume that his company's land is panther habitat.

"The panther ain't never been there, ain't coming back," he said. "You look close enough, you may find a dinosaur track out there, but I don't think the dinosaur is going to come back again."

Wildlife agencies say panthers do stalk this land.

"A year and two months ago, we picked up a dead Florida panther north of the university site," said Land, the game commission biologist. "That's a physical presence that's hard to deny."

Before that fatality, two other panthers were also hit by cars. In November 1988, a panther was injured on the same road, north of the university site. In April 1992, a panther was injured on Alico Road, where University Village would be built.

Reed defends the site selection.

"As far as the university site itself, I am convinced that that is not a problem for the Florida panther. I have a very, very clear conscience about that," Reed said. "Now, I'm not going to talk about what happens across the street."

Wildlife advocates say the university will be a seed for development that will spread into panther land and add traffic, the leading cause of panther deaths.

Sidney Maddock, a lawyer for the Fund for Animals in Washington, said, "It's outrageous for (Reed) to ignore the impacts that the university will cause. It won't be just across the street. It will be throughout the entire eastern Lee County region."

Hard to pin down

Defining where Florida panthers might live is difficult.

They are among the most elusive animals and can range hundreds of square miles in their search for food. They are on the verge of extinction mainly because they need so much room.

This much is clear: Wildlife agency reports show the university site is either near or on land considered important to the panther.

A 1993 panther habitat plan prepared by state and federal agencies shows "priority" lands east of the university site. A 1994 game commission report shows the university within the conservation area needed to ensure the panther's long-term survival.

Field offices of both the state game commission and the U.S. wildlife service concluded that the university and ensuing developments pose a problem for the panther.

In both cases, their recommendations were overturned by administrators who had been lobbied by Griffin's representatives.

Construction can't begin until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reviews the project's effect on wetlands and endangered species and issues a permit.

In August, the game commission office in Punta Gorda drafted a letter to the Corps, citing evidence that the university land is "potential panther habitat." It recommended considering another site. That recommendation and all mention of the commission's new report were deleted from the letter the agency sent to the Corps. The final letter endorsed the Alico site.

Game commission executive director Allan Egbert approved the letter and stands by the decision, but "I couldn't tell you with a straight face" that political factors were not considered, he said.

Egbert said he met with Lee County officials and Alico representatives, who "basically wanted us, in their words, to be reasonable."

"It all boiled down to, how important was this property for the panthers?" he said. "People in my division of wildlife told us that for Florida panthers, it wasn't that big a deal."

The U.S. wildlife office in Vero Beach also concluded that the university project could jeopardize the panther's chances for survival.

That opinion was rejected by the agency's regional office in Atlanta, which concluded that the project "will adversely affect the Florida panther, but it will not jeopardize the continued existence of the species."

Three days earlier wildlife administrators had met with a delegation from Alico and Lee County.

The meeting was arranged by Sen. Bob Graham's office at the request of James Garner, Griffin's lawyer. Richard Hannan, an Atlanta official who helped write the revised opinion, said the senator's involvement had no effect on the decision.

Graham's aides say the senator has taken no position on the panther issue.

Community backing

In Lee County, few people seem worried about panthers. Mostly they fear permit problems could deprive them of the school.

Wayne Daltry, executive director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, defends Griffin. His efforts on behalf of the new university are "a labor of love," Daltry said.

"You know, what has terrified people down here _ we get concerned that an attack on the university's future site would be used as a ruse to loot the funds to build the university."

Even those who passionately resisted building on the site are preparing to give up.

Gene Boyd, a retired professor who heads the Responsible Growth Management Coalition, said the community labeled him an opponent of the university itself. "Neither we, nor the panther, nor anything else is going to stop it," he said recently.

In the temporary offices of Florida Gulf Coast University, president McTarnaghan is planning to show that a campus and environmentally fragile land can coexist. The university plans to replace thousands of exotic melaleuca trees with native plants, create marshes for wading birds in the rock mining area and put panther crossing signs on campus. McTarnaghan has appointed an environmental advisory committee and created a teaching affiliation with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

Meanwhile, Alico has submitted plans for a new university town: 4,767 housing units, a 370-room hotel, a commercial district, light industry, a golf course. Traffic in this area, its plan predicts, will peak at 121,890 trips per day in the year 2010.

On the newly paved rural road to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, 20 signs advertise real estate for sale.