David Dorsey, Fort Myers News-PressPublished 11:59 a.m. ET Sept. 17, 2019 | Updated 9:38 a.m. ET Sept. 20, 2019

Tony Yacovetti is the ‘mitigation man.’ The owner of Sandhill Environmental contracts with subdivisions along Corkscrew Road. Andrea Melendez, Fort Myers News-Press

Tony Yacovetti drove his pickup truck into three housing developments off Corkscrew Road, showing off the past, present and future of the fruits of his labor.

Yacovetti and his 71 employees at Sandhill Environmental, a wetlands mitigation contractor, have been working to restore native plants, uplands and wetlands to one of the biggest boom areas of single-family housing growth ever in Lee County.

“Developers and environmental consultants can work together to enhance the natural areas and use that as a selling point,” Yacovetti said.

This area of southeastern Lee County, east of I-75 and Ben Hill Griffin Road and north and south of Corkscrew Road on about a 10-mile stretch, was, from 1990 until 2015, known as part of the DR/GR. That stood for Density Reduction / Groundwater Resource, an 81,607-acre area that stretched north to State Road 82 and limited new home construction to one per 10 acres.

Those limits were placed by the Lee County government because of concerns over urban sprawl.

In 2015, the government urged, and the Lee County Board of Commissioners voted to move away from DR/GR guidelines and create the “Environmental Enhancement and Preservation Overlay.” This allowed for increased density of homes from one per 10 acres to one per acre in exchange for wetlands and flow-way restorations made by the housing developers.

From 1990 through 2015, 449 homes were built in the DR/GR, Lee County said.

Since 2014, at least 5,166 homes have either been built or are in the planning stages at five developments that would have been within the DR/GR: Corkscrew Shores, The Place at Corkscrew, Vista at Wild Blue and Wild Blue, with Verdana Village in the planning stages.

So far, the communities being built or planned are for either former mining or agricultural lands.

“We were looking at how to balance interests in this area,” said Dave Loveland, community development director for Lee County. “If you developed to the extremes, you could have these sprawling developments with wells and septic tanks.”

Less than two years since construction began at The Place, 55 species of birds and other wildlife have been spotted on the property, said Tony Cameratta, a civil engineer with Cameratta Companies, which has developed a handful of these communities with more on the way.

The birds and wildlife begin to appear as Yacovetti, the “mitigation man,” gets going with his work. Even before the Lee County policy changes were made, Yacovetti did work in the Corkscrew corridor. He estimates he has planted 2 million to 3 million ground cover and aquatic plants and almost 1 million trees and shrubs.

“Just one phase of Wild Blue had 900,000 ground covers,” he said. “That’s the small plugs you saw us planting. That little six-acre area alone had about 30,000 ground covers, no shrubs and about 2,000 trees. That’s just one small area compared to the rest of the project.”

Cameratta Cos. and Yacovetti developed a comfort level with one another more than a decade ago.

In 2006-12, Cameratta owned a ranch in Arcadia, on which Yacovetti’s Sandhill Environmental grew native plants.

In 2011, Yacovetti proposed removing exotic plants and planting native ones at The Preserve at Corkscrew, a housing development by Cameratta just west of the DR/GR. This put that development in compliance with South Florida Water Management District codes and served as a forebear to the current county “environmental overlay.” Yacovetti and his workers took out by machine, and in some cases by hand, invasive melaleuca trees on the south side of Corkscrew Road.

“We used to leave the trees dead,”  Yacovetti said of the melaleucas, which are problematic because they suck dry area wetlands and aren’t native to Florida. Now, he removes the invasive trees completely, grinding them into mulch.

“That’s a clean, natural area, the way it would have been before exotics were introduced,” he said of The Preserve. “This was one of the biggest areas for melaleucas I had ever seen.”

He showed more examples at The Place at Corkscrew, where grass and tree plantings from almost two years ago had matured.

“That was bare dirt a year and a half ago,” Yacovetti said, pointing to an area that looked like a marsh. “It’s all for filter, to allow the water that flows through here to be filtered before it goes into the aquifer. When you go out to a wetland, this is what it would look like. We’re trying to mimic what it would have been like.”

Tony Cameratta became hooked with these concepts and Yacovetti’s work.

Today, the preserves within The Preserve look as if chunks of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary to the south somehow were cut and pasted there.

Cameratta has a similar vision for The Place at Corkscrew, where the plantings are less than 2 years old.

“My vision is 30 years from now, is it will look like Six Mile Slough,” Cameratta said. “With Cypress trees and slough areas throughout the center flow-ways. I really think that’s how it will look in the long run.”

Farther west, at Wild Blue, Yacovetti drove his truck to where his crews were planting slash pine, dahoon holly and laurel oak trees and four types of grasses: cordgrass, sawgrass, muhly grass and maidencane.

Yacovetti hopes to do mitigation work at the forthcoming Verdana Village, too. But for now, he’s focusing on the current tasks at hand, which includes the recent opening of Good Roots Nursery and native plants and trees for sale at 17660 Corkscrew Road. The nursery sells varieties of native trees, shrubs and grasses, including mangroves, maples, pines, cocoplum, firebush, etc.

Yacovetti spent his youth as a commercial fisherman. The closing of a shark fishery near Clearwater led him to work for a friend’s environmental mitigation business in Sarasota in 1998 before he started Sandhill Environmental in Arcadia.

“In 2002, we started our nursery,” Yacovetti said. “In 2005, we started our environmental services.

“I loved the adventure of commercial fishing. It’s neat to see things in nature. To be able to see the fruits of my labor, it’s just really cool to see the impacts that you see. Instead of building a wall like a lot of communities do, we create natural buffers. It’s hard work and very rewarding. But we are grateful to have the opportunity to steward the ground God gave us.”

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