David Dorsey, Fort Myers News-PressPublished 8:00 a.m. ET Sept. 20, 2019 | Updated 1:07 p.m. ET Sept. 20, 2019

Tony Yacovetti is the ‘mitigation man.’ The owner of Sandhill Environmental contracts with subdivisions along Corkscrew Road. Andrea Melendez, Fort Myers News-Press

Lee County has been approving thousands of homes off Corkscrew Road in an area it traditionally protected from sprawl.

The tradeoff: To help the environment, it has been requiring developers to restore wetlands and natural water flow-ways.

In 2015, the Lee County government recommended, and the Lee County Board of Commissioners voted, to change the distinction of the DR/GR, which stood for “Density Reduction/Groundwater Resource,” an 81,607-acre area in southeastern Lee County. It was created to prevent urban sprawl.

The county did away with the DR/GR guidelines, creating the “Environmental Enhancement and Preservation Overlay” instead. This allowed for homes on a one unit per one-acre ratio instead of one per 10 acres in developments that adhered to a new policy that required at least 60% of the housing developments remain open space and that at least 55% be preserved for conservation efforts.

Corkscrew Shores, The Place at Corkscrew, Vista at Wild Blue and Wild Blue, with Verdana Village in the planning stages, are so far the new housing developments in the former DR/GR that have taken root along with millions of native tree, shrub and grass plantings paid for by the developers.

“In the case of Wild Blue, there were three mining pits,” Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said. “You were taking what was a moonscape and turning it back into what it was. They have now restored, or will restore, historic flow-ways. These developers are bringing back what was gone, and they’re doing it at no expense to the taxpayers.

“I think this accomplishes the original goal of the DR/GR. Our goals were to take today’s best modern practices and use that to make sure what’s left of Lee County to build on is done in an environmentally sound way.”

As a trade-off for an increased density on which to build, developers must adhere to the environmental overlay.

“By clustering the homes, that allows them to preserve more of the property,” said Dave Loveland, Lee County community development director. “And you have to have water and sewer, so we’re doing away with septic tanks and wells.”

For civil engineer Tony Cameratta, this meant entering a new realm of developments after moving south from Cleveland, Ohio, with his father, company founder Joe Cameratta, and building High Point Place near downtown Fort Myers.

Cameratta Companies spent about $10 million on environmental enhancements in their newest subdivision, The Place at Corkscrew.

Built on the north side of Corkscrew Road with 1,325 homesites on 1,356 acres, which includes 750 acres of preserves, The Place sells homes that average $350,000 to $450,000. Homes built by Lennar and Pulte start in the upper $200,000s ranging to the upper $700,000s.

The homeowner association fee costs about $300 per month and includes access to a 12,000-square-foot pool, spa, 100-foot waterslide, splash park, playground with zip-lines, tennis and pickleball courts, a dog park, clubhouse and more.

But it’s the effort to preserve and transform the environment from a former sod farm to wetlands and wildlife areas that had Tony Cameratta and company president Ray Blacksmith beaming with pride while giving The News-Press a recent tour.

“Everybody’s amazed at what we’ve been able to achieve with our restoration work,” Blacksmith said. “To us, it’s a public-private partnership. This has to be maintained in perpetuity.”

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an environmental watchdog group since 1964, approved of Lee County’s environmental overlay and has been impressed with Cameratta’s work so far. But the Conservancy has grown concerned about Cameratta’s proposed Verdana Village because initial plans extended it two miles south of Corkscrew Road, a full mile farther than it had hoped.

Cameratta since has amended those plans, clustering the homes closer to Corkscrew Road while asking for additional density, boosting the number of proposed homes from 2,138 to 2,400 to achieve a lower pricing point than at The Place.

In return, Cameratta Companies will add 40 acres of land to restoration work and make additional flood protection enhancements. Cameratta also hopes to have a 100,000-square-foot shopping center fronting Corkscrew Road.

Another commercial area is in the works on the northwest corner of the Old Corkscrew Golf Club, and where Alico intersects with Corkscrew could see commercial development as well. Those three locations could be vying to land a Publix grocery store fronting a two-lane road near where average daily traffic counts have grown from 14,400 in 2006 to 15,598 in 2014 to 26,780 this year.

The additional density concerns Julianne Thomas with Verdana Village. She is a senior environmental planning specialist for the Conservancy. She has master’s degrees in urban planning and geographic information systems and has been with the organization for 10 years.

“We’re trying to understand what they’re doing above and beyond the overlay to get the standalone commercial and the additional 15% in density,” Thomas said. “It’s still more density. It’s still more units. It’s still going to create more traffic. It’s still going to have all of these impacts. You shouldn’t cause a problem, then solve it and get credit for it.

“We need more information about what this means. They’re already required by the overlay to do restoration. So we want to understand how that’s in addition to what’s already required.”

The rapid acceleration of single-family home construction along Corkscrew Road surprised Nicole Johnson, director of environmental policy for the Conservancy. Over the past five years, the number of new homes planned off Corkscrew Road is about 3,000 fewer than the 8,331 permitted during those years in all of Cape Coral, one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.

“No one anticipated there would be so much development so quickly along that Corkscrew corridor,” Johnson said.

In an email exchange between Johnson and Tony Cameratta this week, Johnson relayed those concerns. He advised his company would propose “significant regional enhancements above” the environmental overlay requirements. These new enhancements will be submitted to Lee County for review.

The Conservancy said it would continue working with Lee County to ensure the new development at least follows the path of the ones already under way.

Aside from the future concerns, Johnson and Thomas said their first impressions of the housing developments opening so far have been positive.

“As far as subdivisions go, it’s a fine-looking development,” Thomas said of The Place. “It’s definitely not rural. It’s definitely suburban. The character of that area is changing, and that’s a concern. But the development itself is beautiful. They’ve done a good job. I don’t want to take anything away from their investment and what they’ve put into their development. We just have concerns as they move across the street that the environment is treated appropriately.”

Ed Nestico retired to The Place from Pittsburgh 13 months ago. So far, so good, he said.

“I thought this was the better bargain,” Nestico said when comparing to neighboring communities in Estero and Naples. He has a lake view following a career selling manufactured parts for railroads and subways. “The amenity center is incredible. And they still have a lot of land that is not going to be touched. I really liked that, too.”

Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook)@DavidADorsey (Twitter).

The Corkscrew Road housing boom

  • 449: Number of new homes built in the “DR/GR” in 1990-2015
  • 441: New homes in Preserve at Corkscrew, 2011-2014
  • 647: New homes in Corkscrew Shores, opened in 2014
  • 1,096: New homes in Wild Blue and Vista at Wild Blue
  • 1,325: New homes in The Place at Corkscrew, 2016
  • 2,400: New homes proposed for Verdana Village, TBA