Planners in Lee County, Fla., barely had a chance to read SouthStar Development Partners' application to build a neo-traditional, mixed-use community east of Fort Myers called The Fountains before the invitations for the swamp buggy tours of the property went out.

Facing a potentially steep uphill battle to gain approval for a high-density development on one end of what is now designated as a low-density site, SouthStar managing director Kimball Woodbury thought the tours would be a good way to deflect early opposition to SouthStar's plan to develop the 2,769-acre site.

“We are doing a lot of work through science rather than politics to show that this does make sense,” says Woodbury.

SWAMP EDUCATION: County commissioners and environmental activists participate in swamp buggy tours to learn about SouthStar's development plans. On its face, SouthStar's plans are ambitious. It wants to build 4,215 residential units, 600,000 square feet of retail space, 300,000 square feet of office, and a 1.5-million square-foot research and flex-space district on land that is zoned mostly for one house on every 10 acres. The land was designated as a low-density area to allow rainwater to soak back into the ground, creating a potential spot for future water wells. And many locals consider the area to be environmentally sensitive rather than ripe for development.

“A lot of people believed it was Lee County's conservation area,” says Woodbury. “That means we have got to do everything right. We have done the most intensive environmental study our consultant has ever done and the most extensive Lee County has ever seen.”

Geologists were brought on board to figure out the hydrological systems of the land in an effort to develop a plan that would continue to allow rain water to trickle back down into the ground even after development.

SouthStar hired environmental consultants who spent hundreds of hours surveying wildlife throughout the property. Armed with tablet computers hooked up to satellite systems, they were easily able to pinpoint the exact spot where they saw an egret wading or a foraging fox squirrel. Specialists were hired to look for endangered species, such as the Florida panther, which are discoveries that could derail development.

They found no panthers and an environment that is far from untouched, Woodbury says. Some of the land has been used for agriculture and mining. And, in some areas, non-native plants are taking over.

Armed with all that expensive environmental and geological information, SouthStar came up with the proposal to concentrate the homes and businesses on the north end of the property, close to the crossroads of State Road 82 and Daniels Parkway and just south of Lehigh Acres, a large, older residential community. The northern portion made sense because it has the least wetlands and has already been environmentally affected. A 1,300-acre chunk on the southern end would be set aside for preservation

Plan in place, SouthStar filed for state approval of the development, a zoning change, and for development plan approval with the county. Then, they launched the swamp buggy tours in an effort to educate everybody about their plans—from county commissioners and staff to environmental activists.