In 1997, continuing growth was expected in Southwest Florida's Collier County and the county was mandated to create a plan that would identify and propose measures to protect prime agricultural areas, direct incompatible uses away from wetlands and upland habitats, and evaluate the growth potential of its rural lands.
As a result, the Rural Lands Stewardship Program was created to protect agriculture, the environment and economic viability in almost 200,000 undeveloped rural acres.
The Ave Maria project is the first implementation of the Rural Lands Stewardship Program and is protecting about 17,000 acres.
With the rural stewardship program, landowners can obtain credits for protecting lands that support natural resources and agriculture. Then, those credits can be used in areas deemed suitable for development. The number of credits earned depends on the land's significance, so property owners are more highly rewarded when they protect more valuable lands.
The program is said to incentivize the restoration of land and does not require public funds. It has become a statewide model for land planning in rural areas and is gaining more exposure nationwide.
When the rural stewardship plan is fully implemented in the 200,000-acre Rural Lands area, results will include the following:
- Placing nearly 90,000 acres into stewardship designation
- Protecting 90 percent of uplands and wetlands
- Enforcing environmental protection standards in stewardship areas
- Protecting 75,000 acres, or more than 80 percent of all agricultural resources
- Forming an Agricultural Advisory Committee for Collier County
- Protecting an average of 5 to 7 acres of stewardship areas for each acre of rural development
- Using innovative planning techniques, such as rural commercial villages