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Growth in LaBelle and Hendry County could pose challenges to small town and rural lifestyles

A home under construction in Hendry County, just east of the City of LaBelle. One real estate broker said this area has grown as people move inland to get away from higher costs, rents and traffic, especially on the east coast of the state.

Growth and changes are affecting lifestyles in many parts of southwest Florida, including Hendry County. Some say even the country charm of Labelle - about 30 miles east of Fort Myers - may be changing, and not for the better. Others argue growth is needed, and the country lifestyle will survive. LaBelle has been known for a long time as the home of sprawling live oak trees draped with Spanish moss. Residents say the pace of life has been decidedly slower than in the cities of Lee and Collier Counties.

The City of LaBelle recently approved construction of a three-story, 18-unit apartment building in a neighborhood very near the main business district, and not far from the Caloosahatchee River.

"We have a lot of folks who work here and can't find housing. It was to provide a better quality of life for residents who don't own a home."
LaBelle Mayor Julie Wilkins

Long-time resident Deb Klemmer is not pleased. "it is very sad, very sad that it is happening," Klemmer said.

She claims family ties in Hendry that go back six generations. Now Klemmer owns the Two Peas Cafe and Granny Ella's Pies. She bemoans the loss of big oak trees at the apartment location, even thought the builder is promising to plant trees for each one removed.

"There's enough land just outside town to have the units there, instead of in town, smack-dab in the middle," she said.

Port LaBelle and Banyan Village are located just east of LaBelle, and both are booming with new home construction. Real estate broker Erin Hitsman of Country Homes and Land said most people come from the east coast of the state. She said they are telling her they have to get away from the traffic, crime, high cost of living, and high rents. "And it is much more affordable for them to buy inland," Hitsman said.

The U.S. Census Bureau says LaBelle population of about 5,200 has grown about 10 percent in the past five years. The Bureau says Hendry County now has about 42,000 people — an increase of roughly six percent in five years.

Hendry Economic Development director Keitha Daniels is thrilled by the growth. She said Hendry loses tens of millions of dollars because people choose to drive to Lee, Collier or Palm Beach Counties to shop for things they can't get in Hendry. Daniels is using the growth figures to try to bring in home improvement, automotive and grocery stores. "Our goal is to bring that money back into our community," Daniels said.

But growth can affect lifestyle, and the small town feel of places like LaBelle. Deb Klemmer said some newcomers don't have what she calls southern politeness.

"They are not as patient and slow-paces as we are," she said. "They are rude and condescending, sometimes even."

However Labelle Mayor Wilkins said she has found new residents to be friendly. She said they want to get involved in the city and the lifestyle.

"We have people who have moved here who invest as much as the natives in the community," Mayor Wilkins said. "They have the community spirit, the volunteer spirit."

"They want to slow things down, they want to get away from the big city and that crazy traffic. They want to be able to see the stars at night. They don't want to create the big city that they are trying to escape."
Erin Hitsman, real estate broker

Real estate broker Erin Hitsman said new residents outside the city limits want to preserve the rural lifestyle.

"They want to slow things down, they want to get away from the big city and that crazy traffic," Hitsman said. "They want to be able to see the stars at night. They don't want to create the big city that they are trying to escape."

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Forty-one-year veteran of television news in markets around the country, including more than 18 years as an anchor and reporter at WINK-TV in southwest Florida.