Calusa Land Trust and
Nature Preserve of Pine Island

Environmental Overview

Most of the stately native pines for which Pine Island was named have been destroyed. At least 80 % of the native palmetto and slash pine uplands upon which they grew have been converted to crops and housing - all in the last 100 years. Only some 8 % have been preserved. The remaining 12% are under constant and unrelenting pressure for conversion for agricultural or urban use. Unless something is done, all of the larger and  most significant parcels will be lost within the next five years. Even the small upland parcels interspersed between rural housing could be lost within a few decades.

Pine Island mangrove forests were devastated by dredge-and- fill developments that continued until the mid-1970’s, when the state of Florida awoke to the tragic consequences of this activity. Permits continue to be granted to destroy small mangrove areas, often without adequate mitigation. Mangrove restoration is easy to do but rarely conducted, and the constant attrition will eventually prove costly. Satellite photography suggests that we have lost about 10% of our island’s mangroves in the last 100 years. Of the remaining mangrove forests, about two-thirds have been preserved and about one-third remains endangered.

Our suburban areas are approaching buildout, and our fast-growing population is quickly extending into what are designated  as  "outlying suburban areas". Numerous additional outlying  areas have already been designated in the Lee County Land Use Plan, largely in patchwork fashion, often intruding into rural areas to accommodate previous subdivision activity. Much of our rural areas are in fact not rural but either high intensity agriculture, e.g.,m palm plantations, or parceled into single-family house lots.

Pine Island’s population is growing faster than either the infrastructure or the environment can support without drastic changes. Either controls on growth or expansion of the infrastructure is necessary - which of these should be done or how they should be done are essentially land planning/political questions beyond the charter of the Calusa Land Trust. However, we have to preserve what we have left or we won’t have it.

CLT has identified 38 significant environmentally endangered upland and mangrove areas on and around Pine Island. We have action plans for a mere eight of those areas, and ,of course, not all of these action plans will  be successful. All Pine Islanders are strongly encouraged to join with the Calusa Land Trust in   developing action plans for all 38 properties and  implementing as many of them as possible.

  Explanatory Notes

The designations urban community, suburban, outlying suburban, rural, and mangroves (wetlands) referred to below are those used by the Lee County Government in the county’s land use plan,  known as The Lee Plan. This plan establishes not only permissible uses but also permissible residential densities as detailed in the descriptions below. The plan is binding and is imposed without respect to zoning requirements, some of which are inconsistent with The Lee Plan. The labels "residential rural" versus "cultivated rural "as well as "protected" versus "endangered habitats" are somewhat arbitrary. The listings of endangered properties include only environmentally "significant" properties which have not been preserved by legally enforceable restrictions. What is "significant" is somewhat subjective, but takes into account the size of the property, the quality of its native habitat,  and its proximity to other preserved properties. Other considerations are hydrological concerns,  whether the property can serve as a green corridor for wildlife, as a filter between protected waters and agriculture or residential areas, or as hurricane or storm wind and surge protection for inhabited areas. It is expected that the definition of "significant" will change over the next few years. As the larger parcels are either protected or lost,  the lesser parcels not now considered significant will become more so.

Urban Communities

This is the highest density land use designation on Pine Island. The Lee Plan for Pine Island urban communities allows standard density ranges from one dwelling unit per acre to six dwelling units per acre. Urban communities include residential, commercial, public and quasi-public, and light industry. We have three such communities:

Matlacha - All of Matlacha (between the bridges) is designated urban community, the same designation given Pine Island Center. Matlacha was created in 1926 when mangrove islands, Calusa mounds, and dredge fill were used to created a causeway and bridge to Pine Island. Squatter shacks along the causeway soon followed, and those later gave way to homestead residences, seafood houses, and bait stores - the character of which remains today. City water and a small temporary sewage plant on Little Pine Island (soon to be replaced by a modern plant being built north of St James City) serve Matlacha. Nearly all residences in Matlacha are single family homes on fairly small canal or bay front lots. There is no stormwater system that could detain or cleanse rainfall before it reaches tidal waters. The canals are dead-ended and do not facilitate tidal flushing. Matlacha is the only developed area of significant size directly fronting on Matlacha Pass - all other similarly developed areas are enveloped by barrier canals and mangrove filters. Although pollution from septic tanks has been eliminated, polluted stormwater runoff from Matlacha residences, businesses, and highways is a matter of serious concern. Shellfish from Matlacha waters should not be eaten (the shellfish sold at Matlacha seafood houses are not taken from Matlacha waters). Water monitoring has recently been instituted.

Pine Island Center -  Pine Island Center -  Basically that part of Pine Island Center which lies between the mangrove fringes from north of the Winn-Dixie Shopping Center to south of Marina Drive plus Pine Island Ridge (the fish streets) and the Blue Crab Key Condominiums. Included are The Nestings of Pine Island, the Pine Island Elementary School area, and the Charlotte Shores and Serenity Cove communities. It does not include the palm and citrus fields across from the Industrial Park.

Pineland - Pineland - The existing marina area at Pineland is also designated urban community.

 Suburban Areas

The Lee Plan states that "standard residential densities for suburban areas are the same as the urban community" (one to six dwelling units per acre), but that "commercial development greater than neighborhood centers and industrial land uses are not permitted." We have five such communities.

Downtown Bokeelia Downtown Bokeelia - All of the inhabited portions north of the Bokeelia post office.. The Calusa once inhabited the area, and the eastern tip of Bokeelia once boasted the largest mound in the region (Howard Mound). Calusa Island was created when Shell Cut was dredged so that barges could get into Jug Creek to remove the mound for use as fill (an oft-repeated tragedy on Pine Island). Jug Creek is open at both ends and flushes well, but many of the canals south of Jug Creek do not benefit  from tidal flushing and thus present a special pollution problem stemming from both from storm eater runoff and from septic drainfields.

Downtown St. James City - Basically all the non-mangrove portions of St. James City  south of the Monroe Canal Bridge. The authorized residential density of six units per acre is usually laid out as 80' wide lots. St. James City was once mainly if not all mangroves. Between 1,000 to 6,000 years ago, settlements were carved out of the mangroves by the Calusa who lived along what is now San Carlos Drive and Galt Island. They used shell to pave and mold their waterfront village centers as well as to create huge mounds. The Calusa and their culture were destroyed by about 1700 and the area stood vacant until the late 1800’s. Settlers used the shell mounds (including some burial mounds containing thousands of human bones) to pave many of the still existing streets. Later developers used heavy equipment to dig saltwater canals to drain the land and use the fill to create house lots for what is now the entire downtown suburban area. The overwhelming majority of suburban St. James City is now canal-front single-family lots only a small percentage of which are vacant. Buildout of canal front lots is expected in some 5 to 10 years. Buildout of off-water lots will follow within the suburban area a few years later. Except for the Cherry Estates manufactured home development, St. James City does not have a central sewage system at this time. Like Matlacha, there is also no storm water runoff system - all runoff goes directly into the canals. Non-point runoff pollution is a serious problem as is pollution from septic tank drainfields. Some of the canals are dead-end ditches, but most are open at both ends allowing tidal flushing. Shellfish harvested in the suburban area are not safe to eat. Water monitoring is not presently conducted within the suburban area.

Flamingo Bay/Pine Island Cove - Mainly high density,   canal-front manufactured home communities  midway between Pine Island Center and downtown St. James City. Central water and a private sewage system serve both communities. Many of the Pine Island Cove canals do not connect directly to open water. A travel lift is used to cross protective berms to open-water canals thereby providing an outstanding filter system between Pine Island Cove residences and the Aquatic Preserve. The open-water canals throughout Flamingo Bay and parts of Pine island Cove all dead-end. There is restricted tidal flushing, and non-point pollution is therefore a serious concern. The entire area is well served by high quality (but endangered) mangroves which serve as a filter between  residential areas and 40-Acre Bay and adjacent Pine Island Sound.

Pine Island Village - A 97-acre residential community of single-family homes ½ mile south of Flamingo Bay and just north of the endangered Village Links uplands suburban area. This designation would authorize six units per acre, although   lots are in fact much larger. This community surrounds a lake, but little of the native habitat has been preserved. There is no direct water access and the  aquatic preserve is buffered from the community by a 177-acre mangrove forest .

Tropic Isles/Pink Citrus Area - The campgrounds at Tropic Isles and Pink Citrus are also designated suburban. The designation extends from Stringfellow Road to the CLT's Big Jim Creek Preserve which serves as a filter between the campground area and the Pine Island Sound Aquatic Preserve. Numerous small canals or ditches dug for mosquito control purposes connect the campground areas as well as the watershed on the east side of Stringfellow. They feed directly into Big Jim Creek waterways and thence into the aquatic preserve. They are often filled with litter, and the algae blooms in the stagnant water indicate the presence of excess nutrients.

Outlying Suburban Areas

For outlying suburban areas, The Lee Plan says: "The standard density range is from one dwelling unit per acre to three dwelling units per acre." Densities of 3 units per acre are often laid out in 100' wide lots. There are eight such communities.

Alden Pines - The golf course community of Alden Pines plus the Isles of Pines and Sun-Diet Village communities.

Bokeelia Suburbs--The area south of downtown Bokeelia from the Bokeelia post office through September Estates on the west side of Stringfellow as far south as Beach Daisy Lane and west to Quail Trail and then east to Bahama Way. The Kreamer development east of Stringfellow is also included. Most of this area, particularly the southeast portion, is sparsely populated and heavily vegetated with high quality palmetto and slash pine uplands.

Conifer Lake - Conifer Lake - This area is a so far uninhabited development north of the St. James City Post Office. Roads have been paved and the housing lots (largely pristine palmetto/slash pine uplands) laid out. As yet there has been no construction but its development order was recently renewed. The Lee County tax records list the property as 20 acres of vacant residential, 18 acres of endangered species property (the Eagle Preserve with an active eagle nest is on the south border of the property), and 31 acres of mangroves.

Galt Island Shores - 37 single- family canal-front residential lots on the south side of Galt Island Avenue and an undeveloped 52-acre parcel on the north side. The canal is open at both ends and subject to tidal flushing.

KOA Campground KOA Campground - A large public campground with an extensive mangrove filter protecting the waters of Matlacha Pass.

Manatee Bay - A single- family residential community which fronts on both sides of a single dead-end canal leading directly to Matlacha Pass. Tidal flushing is minimal and non-point pollution is therefore a concern. But there is an excellent (albeit endangered) mangrove filter surrounding the mouth of the canal.

Northeast Pine Island - Northeast Pine Island - Several isolated but large parcels among the palm plantations east of Stringfellow have been designated outlying suburban although they presently contain few residences. They include about 80 acres at the east end of Mannheim Road, 40 acres at the northeast corner of Herald Harbor Road and Pinecrest Drive, and 20 acres along Mankato Lane. They have all been platted into lots of .5 to 1 acre and sold to hundreds of different owners.

St Jude Harbors - St Jude Harbors - Single- family homes, most of which front on salt-water canals. Much of what is now the St. James Creek Preserve mangrove area was at one time slated for dredge and fill to extend this community all the way to Matlacha Pass where the developers planned to build a bridge to Punta Rassa.

Tropical Homesites - Tropical Homesites - An uplands single-family residential community with many vacant lots still covered with  palmetto, slash pine, and native wildflowers. An effort should be made to develop a community plan to save some of these uplands. The community is served by a common access canal and boat ramp east of the community and next to Tropical Point Park. A strip of mangroves on the south side of the canal was bulldozed, which created siltation that is filling in the canal. The Dobbs Preserve serves as a filter between most of the community and Matlacha Pass.

Useppa Island Useppa Island - Most of Useppa is also designated outlying suburban. This 60-acre private island is extensively developed.  Mangroves occupy the southern tip and western center edge. The island constitutes a unique well-preserved model residential environment. The residents guard their habitat most carefully and pollution controls are excellent. All other islands in area waters, including Cabbage Key, are designated mangrove areas.

 Rural Areas

All areas on Pine Island not designated urban community, suburban, outlying suburban, or mangrove are designated rural. The Lee Plan states that "Maximum density in the rural area is one dwelling unit per acre." It also states that "The rural areas are to remain predominantly rural - that is, low density residential, agricultural uses, and minimal non-residential land uses that are needed to serve the rural community." The plan further prohibits rezoning of Pine Island rural areas to a density greater than 3 units per acre. Most Pine Islanders believe that densities of either 1 or 3 dwelling units per acre constitute a suburb, not a rural community. The plan also prohibits rezoning which would increase traffic on Pine Island Road when the traffic "between Burnt Store Road and Stringfellow Boulevard reaches 810 peak hour, annual average two-way trips". The County Department of Transportation advised the County Commissioners in September, 1999 that the threshold had been reached (the count was 824 trips), and the Commissions immediately voted 5-0 to begin proceedings to revise the threshold.

Residential - Residential - Although rural residential designation by Lee County allows one residential unit per acre, most of the residential rural areas on Pine Island are laid out in larger parcels. The community near Mango Tango Nursery is laid out in 2.5 acre, 5 acre, and larger parcels, while the community near the VFW is laid out primarily in 1.25 acre parcels. Many of the rural areas in northeast Pine Island not devoted to palm plantations have been platted and sold in 2.5 acre parcels. Although sold to numerous owners or investors, a significant percentage of them have not been developed and remain in native habitat - usually palmetto and slash pine. Even where not extensively developed, these areas would be very difficult to convert into significant size preserves because of the many owners involved. Nonetheless, they are environmentally of critical importance to Pine Island for two main reasons. (1) With exception of the few significantly sized endangered uplands listed below, they constitute the only remaining native uplands on Pine Island; (2) They contain the bulk of our remaining native plants and animals. For example, both the Mango Tango and VFW communities referred to above each has an active eagle nest located within a few hundred feet of occupied dwellings. Plans need to be drawn for every Pine Island rural community designating green space corridors connecting to larger preserved areas.

Cultivated - Cultivated - Most of the uplands in the Bokeelia area have been converted to palm plantations. Palm plantations constitute a relatively clean form of farming in that they usually require little to no pesticides. They do however require vast amounts of fertilizer and water. Runoff of excess nutrients can be a big problem and mangrove filters are essential to protect the Aquatic Preserves. The St. James City area does not thus far have extensive cultivated areas and probably will not  because of a lack of water and suitable land. The south end of Pine Island is a bit cooler and much narrower than the north end, and potential farm areas are much closer to the mangrove fringe. Areas close to the mangrove fringe have poor soil, and wells near the fringe will not produce useable water. Unfortunately, many would-be palm farmers only find this out after they have cleared the land. Unlike more northern habitats, the Pine Island habitat will not replenish itself when cleared and then abandoned - melaleuca and other exotic infestation is the invariable result.

Uplands

All uplands on Pine Island fall within the rural designation, and unless protected will be destroyed when converted to intensive agriculture or residential housing. In its native state, Pine Island uplands mainly consisted of tall pines with an understory of palmetto and native wildflowers interspersed with oak hammocks. The coastal dunes often included a ridge of tropical hardwood hammock -  mainly gumbo limbo and ficus with an understory of stopper, ferns, and bromeliads.

Frequent lightning fires were a part of the life cycle of the understory. These natural fires did not reach up in to the tall pines but kept the understory from becoming too dense. Modern settlers harvested all of the tall pines and put out the fires that kept the understory in check  The result was an uplands depleted of tall vegetation but  too thick in understory. Because the vegetation is so thick it also burns hotly enough to kill tall pines as well as threatening the human population.  The only way to reverse this situation is to preserve the uplands, replant eastern and longleaf pines, and use prescribed fires to periodically clear the understory thus mimicking the natural process.

One hundred years ago, Pine Island uplands  covered an estimated 20,000 acres.  80 % has been destroyed (plowed under or built over). Another  6 % has been subdivided and sparsely populated.  Only 1,551 acres or about 8 % has been preserved. Another 1,171 acres  or about 6 % remain in good but endangered condition in parcels of significant size.

Mangroves

Mangrove areas on Pine Island are designated as "wetlands" in The Lee Plan which says, "The maximum density [in wetland areas] is one dwelling unit per twenty acres." The Plan goes on to permit "only residential and recreational uses that will not affect the ecological functions of wetlands." Most Pine Islanders believe that any dwelling  in a mangrove area  adversely affects its ecological function. Nonetheless, this standard, while not perfect, is perhaps the most restrictive in the State of Florida, and Lee County is sometimes cited as the leader in mangrove protection.

The Calusa originally cleared some mangroves for small villages along the water’s edge in St. James City, Galt Island, Bokeelia, and Pineland, as well as several islands located in Pine Island Sound and where Matlacha sits today. Twentieth century settlers took over those areas and expanded them tremendously using heavy equipment to dredge canals and fill mangroves inland of Calusa villages. Those expanded areas essentially coincide with the suburban areas of Pine Island today. Satellite photographs indicate that about 10% of our former mangroves have been destroyed. While it sounds good to note that 90% of our mangroves remain intact, the loss of 10% represents an immediate 10% loss of our aquatic nursery habitat plus an additional significant increase in runoff and pollution.

Permits continue to be granted to build in mangrove areas, but only infrequently. Residential dwelling permits expressly authorize the destruction of mangroves for house pads and septic tanks if no uplands are available (as do dock and road permits), although mitigation is often required. Even with mitigation, a net loss to the environment usually results.