Building a better environment

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May 1, 2021
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December 8, 2021

Andrea Stetson

Special to Fort Myers News-Press

Sept. 4, 2021

When developers build roads and homes on undeveloped land, it often gets a bad environmental rap. But sometimes even the biggest developments can actually enhance nature.

Cameratta Companies is busy restoring natural flowways, and removing exotic vegetation on the land that will soon become Verdana Village. They are returning 1,202 of the 2,138 acres to its natural state and preserving that acreage. The land was formerly a pepper farm and citrus grove. Nick Cameratta, CEO of Cameratta Companies, said the farm used 1.1 billion gallons of water a year. When complete, Verdana Village will use about 300 million gallons.

“A lot of water gets used with farming activities, so we get rid of that,”  Nick Cameratta said.

“You will have use for the houses, but it is significantly less,” Tony Cameratta, an engineer, added.

Adding weirs and culverts and grading down the land now allows the water to move slower and in a more natural course. The property had Brazilian pepper, melaleuca, torpedo grass, marsh grass, hyacinth and water lettuce. Now, that has been replaced with cypress and pine trees along with some oaks, maples, holly, wax myrtle, coco plum and more native greenery.

“We try to get diversity out there,” Tony Cameratta said. “I want to get some seed base out there. The animals will move the seeds around and disperse them. And different plants have different benefits for different animals.”

 Verdana Village will have 2,400 front doors when complete. There will be a huge sports complex with both indoor and outdoor facilities, shops, roads and lots of concrete. But there will also be more than 1,200 acres of natural restored land. Developers and environmentalists say it is the balancing act that helps the environment while permitting growth.

Win Everham, professor of ecology and environmental studies in the water school at FGCU, said the landscape has been damaged by farming and mining and responsible developers can help fix the problem.

“It’s how to develop smartly, rather than trying to stop development,” he stressed.

Everham said many people who have been here for years see development as a problem, but development is going to happen, so the best thing is to use it to help nature.

“People are coming whether we like it or not, so we might as well build it right,” Everham said. “And we can use it to restore some of the things we have damaged in the past. It is guiding development to do the right thing. We can do that.”

Verdana Village is not the first time Cameratta Companies has stressed environmental responsibility when creating a community. The Place, a community of 1,325 homes, was once a sod and vegetable farm. Ray Blacksmith, president of Cameratta Companies, said chemicals from fertilizer were rampant back then.

“We have monitoring wells that we still monitor,” Blacksmith explained. “And we provide that information to Lee County to make sure nothing is being contaminated. When it was a farm and the land had pesticides and herbicides, there was no monitoring going on to show if there was contamination near their wells.”

“When it was all agricultural the water was all flowing out,” Nick Cameratta added. “Now it is all being cleaned throughout the process and the water quality is significantly improved.”

The company preserved 752 of the 1,368 acres that make up The Place. In the restoration area they planted more than 1.7 million plants and 95,500 trees.

“Naysayers said we were destroying the environment, but no one went out there to see it. We didn’t cut even one (native) tree down,” Blacksmith said. “Every single blade of grass was hand planted in the flowways. We didn’t just throw out some seed. It was all physically planted. It is astounding.”

During original permitting they documented the wildlife out there and found 35 types of birds, mammals and reptiles. Now there are 89 species including bald eagles and snail kites.

Everham said development enhancing wildlife is not unusual. An area near FGCU that used to be farmland is now developed with a fire station and a church.

“It was an old pasture land that had been altered,” Everham explained. “The developer came in and restored the area. There is more abundance and greater diversity (of frogs) than before the development, because they had the money to go in there and do it right.”

When the county buys land to preserve, it then has to find the funds for restoration. The Cameratta’s say when a developer sets aside conservation land, they foot the restoration bill and do the work. Between The Place and Verdana Village, the company restored more than 2,000 acres and put it in conservation for free.

Using aerial photos from the 1940’s, the company tried to recreate the natural flow of water. Grading the land and adding culverts and weirs not only restored the natural flow, it allowed water to slowly percolate into the soil and rock.

“Because the property was agricultural the farmer created a berm,” Blacksmith explained. “They diverted the historical pass of water so during a heavy storm, water from the north started heading south and hit the berm and headed west and flooded out Corkscrew Road, and Burgundy Farms was being flooded too. We were halfway through the construction of The Place and Hurricane Irma hit and there was zero flooding on Burgundy Farms and zero flooding on Corkscrew Road because the water was stored on The Place and never went out and hurt anybody.”

When they were done, Cameratta Companies gave tours to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Thank you so much for being good stewards of the resources and help providing good quality residential communities,” Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, Regional Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, South Atlantic-Gulf & Mississippi-Basin wrote to Cameratta Companies. “It was great to be able to see the development and conservation projects. I learned many things that will help me do my job better.”

Miranda- Castro said Cameratta Companies is helping to create healthy, native ecosystems.

“They have protected and restored these habitats, connecting lands and waters to the benefit of not only fish, wildlife and plants, but to the benefit of people,” Miranda-Castro explained.

“The Cameratta Company incorporated some excellent wildlife corridors into the development upfront,” added Larry Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Florida Ecological Services state supervisor. “These corridors represent hundreds of acres of natural habitat, and they provide safer passage for wildlife moving through the area. These corridors not only help wildlife move through the area, they also provide more natural hydrology, they help clean the water, and they conserve native plant communities. And we can’t forget that they provide open space for people.  People like to be close to nature and close to conservation areas. It is this type of planning that helps find a balance between our human needs while preserving space for nature as well.”

When Cameratta Companies bought the property that now houses Corkscrew Shores it had a dilapidated mining rig that was falling over, septic tanks were rampant and mining scarred the land. Now there are 647 homes. The mining pit has been turned into a 60 foot deep lake that was stocked with 20,000 fish. The rusty rig and septic tanks are gone and exotic vegetation has been replaced with native species.

The property is right next to preserved CREW marsh land.

“It is now an excellent buffer to the CREW lands,” Blacksmith said.