Lehigh Acres Commercial Land Use Study
Lehigh Acres is located in eastern Lee County, Florida. It encompasses a total of 96 square miles and now has a peak season population of about 30,000. These totals amount to 12% of Lee County's land area and 7% of its population.
Initial development of Lehigh Acres began in the mid-1950s. Most of the community's land has been platted into separate building lots and sold to individuals around the world.
Lehigh Acres is one of the largest such "lot-sales" communities in Florida, with almost 120,000 existing lots and a projected population (if fully built) of about 342,000 people. That is almost as many people as now live in all of Lee County.
Lee County contains two of the largest lot-sales communities in the nation, Lehigh Acres and Cape Coral. As a result, Lee County has by far the largest number of vacant single-family lots of any county in Florida.
Lehigh Acres has many assets and has been growing very quickly in recent years. However, it has several inherent physical problems that are quite severe, but which can be remedied. This study is the beginning of the planning process to identify the best solutions and the means to carry them out.
Lehigh Acres today contains two distinct communities. The first is its coherent core area, pleasantly suburban in character and provided with all services. This compact core is surrounded in every direction by sparsely settled land. Individual lot owners can build homes almost anywhere by installing a private well and septic system. The resulting setting seems spacious and almost rural in character, although continuing growth will result in a traditional suburban character.
Lehigh Acres has become popular in recent years in part because of its affordability, with its abundance of vacant lots keeping land costs low. Lehigh Acres retains a traditional "home-town" feel, and has many active community organizations. Since Colonial Boulevard was extended to Lehigh Acres, it makes Lehigh very accessible to the concentration of jobs and shopping in central Lee County.
Lehigh Acres' many assets are offset by a number of serious difficulties. The coherence of the core neighborhoods is not being replicated today on a large scale. The provision of public utilities such as water and sewer service may become quite expensive, and road maintenance costs are very high, with a limited number of homes and businesses provided tax revenue for a vast areas. The major road network in Lehigh Acres is severely flawed, being made up of occasional two-lane roads with many gaps that threaten overall continuity. Employment and shopping opportunities for future residents will be very limited by the lack of unplatted land for businesses. This study focuses primarily on the shortage of land for shopping purposes, and addresses the inadequacies of the major road network through the year 2020.
Initial forecasts were prepared for future population levels and distribution in Lehigh Acres. By the year 2020, an estimated 91,733 people will make their permanent home in Lehigh Acres.
These population levels will require commercial land far beyond what available today. Specific commercial land requirements were forecasted based on actual ratios from other communities with similar characteristics. The table to the left summarize the forecasts of population and commercial land.
About 2% of the land in Lehigh Acres currently has commercial zoning, far less than the typical 5% commercial allocation for an entire community. Even if all of this zoned land were actually available and usable for commercial development, it would provide only enough space for about 38% of the build-out population of Lehigh Acres. An even greater problem, though, is that much of the remaining commercially zoned land suffers from serious flaws. Two of these flaws are:
Six concepts were developed to experiment with different methods of remedying the shortage of commercial land. These included:
These concepts were translated to actual commercial site plans at eight actual locations around Lehigh Acres, as shown in the map below.
Following the preparation of these site plans and their presentation at a public meeting in Lehigh Acres, the more promising solutions were ranked as the basis for the next stage of analysis, which was to identify a commercial land-use pattern to match future residential growth. These priorities take advantage of the simplest solutions first (such as modifying regulations) and then progressing to the more complex solutions as far as needed to provide a reasonable balance of commercial land in the future.
Today's Lee Plan standards for commercial growth are the same in Lehigh Acres as throughout Lee County; given the pre-platted situation in Lehigh Acres, the current standards are needlessly restrictive. Regulations are easier to change than fragmented ownership, unsuitable soils, or an inadequate road network.
Any remaining unplatted tracts, or platted tracts whose lots have never been sold off, must be recognized as valuable resources. These tracts can provide a relatively simple means of retrofitting Lehigh Acres for its shortage of commercial land (as well as for future schools, parks, and multifamily housing).
Some of the existing commercial strips are of little real value, but others are in prime locations for actual commercial uses. Many have lots that are deep enough for at least some commercial uses. Positive attributes for commercial strips include: near an existing or future major intersection; lot depths of 175 feet or more; and ownership that is not fragmented. At the best locations, the strips could be deepened further to provide shopping center sites.
The small-scale commercial alternative would be more likely to succeed if it were officially sanctioned in county regulations. This could be done through a Lee Plan policy and either a special zoning district or a redevelopment overlay district.
After experimenting with the higher priorities above, and after taking into account the usefulness of the off-site options (e.g., Daniels, Commerce Lakes, Colonial intersections with S.R. 82), some gaps may still remain where there are insufficient commercial alternatives. To fill these gaps, the difficult task of lot assembly may be required. Private land assembly should be encouraged, and the very best remaining locations should be considered for governmental assembly. The use of the CRA's powers of eminent domain would be required in most cases, and acquisition costs may be high. Alternative cooperative arrangements should be considered prior to the use of eminent domain, such as voluntary purchases, lot swaps, or development agreements with existing owners or participating developers.
Using these five priorities, specific potential commercial sites in Lehigh Acres were identified, mapped, and evaluated. An initial target for commercial acreage was 2080 acres, 125% of the demand at build-out. Additional potential acreage was also identified, for a total of 3015 acres.
To complicate matters, many of these same sites will also be in demand for other land uses not provided by the original developers: schools, parks, utilities, and multifamily sites. Forecasts were prepared to quantify demands for future public schools, community parks, and churches/synagogues. These three uses alone will consume about 2600 acres at build-out of Lehigh Acres.
All of the above computations have been for the full build-out. However, other than for the pre-platted communities such as Lehigh Acres, most of the Lee Plan has a target year of 2020. For instance, road and utility planning is typically based on the land-use forecasts for the year 2020. To ensure consistency with these portions of the Lee Plan, a year 2020 commercial plan was developed, as shown below.
To balance the legitimate land needs for commercial development with the other missing land-use components, this study proposes a "Lehigh Commercial" land-use designation that strongly encourages commercial uses but also allows schools, parks, other public uses, churches, and multifamily development. Two other proposed designations identify other types of potential commercial land:
In addition, some nearby land outside Lehigh Acres has been identified as very suitable for providing for the shopping needs of residents. Some of this land, for instance at the intersection of S.R. 82 and the proposed Daniels Parkway Extension, requires Lee Plan amendments in order to be used commercially.
In any case, Lee County needs to designate the prime "Lehigh Commercial" acreage in a manner that eliminates its conversion to conventional single-family lots and ensures that any other future residential uses will not consume more than a small portion of this land. Yet it must do this in a manner that encourages rather than punishes the landowners, many of whom will have to hold these parcels for an extended period of time before commercial market demand reaches them. This requires a delicate balance between potentially competing interests and between private property rights and long-term public needs. If the ultimate resolution of this balancing act does not protect enough commercial land, then lot assembly techniques would be required (rather than being a desirable but optional program).
The traffic impacts of the proposed plan for commercial development were simulated using a computerized travel model developed by the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). This model was modified to use the assumptions for residential and commercial development prepared during this study. By modelling the resulting traffic patterns and volumes, any deficiencies in the existing and proposed road network can be identified.
This simulation showed that the total number of car trips originating at homes in Lehigh Acres would be reduced, with a better balance between trip origins (from homes) and trip destinations (to jobs, shopping, and schools). The result is reduced demand for road capacity between Lehigh Acres and the rest of Lee County because more trips can be made wholly within Lehigh Acres. This saves on roadbuilding costs and will make Lehigh Acres' residents less dependent on extended car trips for everyday needs.
The overall road system previously planned for Lehigh Acres for the year 2020 should be improved by adding a number of relatively inexpensive "missing links" into the future network. With these links, five new east-west corridors can be created to supplement Lee Boulevard and S.R. 82, now the only continuous east-west roads.
Although these new corridors only have enough right-of-way for two lanes at present, when added to the other improvements already planned by the MPO, they will provide adequate road capacity through the year 2020.
Although there is no travel simulation model that predicts traffic for years beyond 2020, it is clear that serious road deficiencies will develop in Lehigh Acres in later years. At a minimum, the additional 2020 improvements should be added to Lee County's official plans, and right-of-way for the missing links should be obtained now before homes are built on the lots that will be needed. (Engineering design and construction of the links can await actual demand and available funding.)
As a prelude to the important planning for longer-term road needs, a number of specific changes are proposed to Lee County's Official Trafficways Map. These changes will delete several infeasible road corridors and add a number of others which will clearly be needed for future levels of traffic. Two corridors outside Lehigh Acres should be included on this map: an extension of Sunshine northward to S.R. 80, and a connection from Alabama (or Sunshine) to Alico Road.
This report concludes with a discussion of methods to implement its recommendations, and specific language to be used to amend the Lee Plan to incorporate the new commercial land-use designations for Lehigh Acres. These designations would become "overlays" on the Future Land Use Map. Actual rezoning of land covered by these overlays would be pursued by landowners in accordance with this plan. Additional recommendations are provided for amendments to the land development code.
COPIES OF THE COMPLETE STUDY CAN BE PURCHASED FOR $25 FROM:
Spikowski Planning Associates
1617 Hendry Street, Suite 416
Fort Myers, Florida 33901
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