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Break for Shady Hills landowner gives wildlife less room to roam

Officials recently granted an exception to a landowner to shrink safe passages for animals like these whitetail deer at the Cross Bar Ranch Wellfield.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Officials recently granted an exception to a landowner to shrink safe passages for animals like these whitetail deer at the Cross Bar Ranch Wellfield.

The Pasco County Commission struck a deal last month with a landowner that threatens to undercut wildlife protections crafted over the past nine years.

The owners of 530 acres in Shady Hills complained that the policy — which called for a 2,200-foot-wide wildlife corridor to cut across their property — would harm their plans for more intense development.

County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder warned that granting a break could create a precedent, giving other landowners leverage to ask for skinnier corridors. But the commission sympathized with the Dorsett family Sept. 8 — and cut their portion of the corridor's width in half.

The Gulf Coast Conservancy has taken the first step toward a legal challenge, and asked state regulators to review the decision. In an Oct. 6 letter to the board, the group said the commission "acted in haste" by making a last-minute change. The conservation group said Pasco misinterpreted procedures to make a "critical decision with potentially disastrous effect on the future of conservation and preservation efforts in Pasco County."

Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Jack Mariano have defended the move, saying the county would have been "taking" private property by keeping the full corridor — although a county appraisal showed the value of the tract would ultimately rise, even with the full corridor.

They and other board members also questioned the science behind the 2,200-foot corridor width. But they refused to postpone the Dorsett vote or make a decision contingent upon learning more about the corridors.

Mulieri's role has particularly irked conservationists because she made her name in politics supporting environmental causes.

"She rode in on the environmental horse and then shot the thing," said Dan Rametta, a member of Citizens for Sanity.

No agreement on size

In 1999, Citizens for Sanity sued Pasco County arguing that officials were approving too much growth without following protections for wildlife. One solution was wildlife corridors.

With habitats dwindling, the animals need routes so they can reach the habitats that still exist. That helps keep their numbers up, and helps manage growth, too.

The county agreed the next year to a settlement, which included a study to determine the right places for the routes. The corridors would take an estimated 0.4 percent of Pasco's total space.

Under the proposed policy, the routes would not upend any buildings already in place. Nor would anyone be forced to sell their land. In fact, if a corridor clipped their property, developers would get credits to build additional housing elsewhere on the site.

In 2002, the commission voted to accept the study by consultant Glatting Jackson. In 2006, Pasco promised to protect the corridors in its state-mandated plan to manage growth, which it spent millions to create.

Based on other scientific studies, Glatting Jackson recommended routes as wide as 2,200 feet, depending on length of the path and the location of existing development. The firm argued for the broad swath because of whitetail deer, which studies said need wider paths. Overall, it matched general findings espoused by ecologists, who recommend the widest possible paths.

"Animals won't move through an area that they're not living in. And some move pretty slowly," said Ken Tracey, president of the West Pasco Audubon Society.

Wildlife that tend to live out of sight, such as indigo snakes and gopher tortoises, also need hidden, forested or bushy areas.

"If an oak tree can't grow in it then it's not much of a corridor," Tracey said. "It needs at least 200 to 300 feet to put out its canopy."

But the county never settled the key question. Despite approving hundreds of pages, nothing in the long-range plan or the settlement said how wide a corridor had to be. It was left to a county ordinance that was supposed to be passed in December 2007.

It still hasn't reached a vote.

Threat of a lawsuit

Such a wide path didn't fit in the plans of the Dorsett family, longtime Brooksville fruit growers who own a 530-acre pine forest east of the Suncoast Parkway and north of State Road 52 — prime turf as growth creeps up the toll road.

"I think you can trust us to do a nice project out there," Powers Dorsett told the board.

Under current zoning, the owners are entitled to build 459 housing units, according to a county report. But the Dorsetts sought approval for nearly three times as many homes on the land, officially owned by their Bell Fruit and Zeneda companies.

But their land was clipped by the proposed wildlife corridor running north of J.B. Starkey Preserve to connect with Cross Bar Ranch.

So their attorney, Joe Mason of Brooksville, threatened in January to sue Pasco for $2.3-million — the lost value of the land, his appraisals said — if the corridor was enforced. They held off as the county prepared details of the policy.

In July, however, appraisals for the county also showed approving the wider wildlife corridor with more densely packed development actually would increase the value of the Dorsett land by more than $3-million. Those appraisal were not discussed at the Sept. 8 board meeting.

"Maybe taking is the wrong word on that," Mason said in an interview. "Undue burden is the proper phraseology."

Working with King Helie, a Hudson-based development consultant, Mason also argued to reduce the corridor by up to 600 feet on its east side, where homes could go up on the Dorsett land.

Their biologist, Steve Peacock of Florida Design Consultants of Trinity, found a much smaller buffer was needed from the wetland near the Cotee River, based on how wildlife can use wetlands. Another part of their case: Pasco widths were excessive. Indiana's wildlife agency, for example, recommended routes 50 to 200 feet wide.

Helie also blasted Glatting Jackson's report for basing the 2,200-foot corridors on the needs of Minnesota deer, which he said were larger and needed more space than Florida's whitetail deer. And Mason pointed out the county policy called for the corridors when "feasible." That meant, he said, case by case, size by size.

In fact, the county had negotiated corridor size on other projects, rerouting it and using smaller widths down to 550 feet for short distances.

And besides, Helie and Mason told the board, the county could impose the tougher standards later if it wanted to change its long-term growth plan.

"I don't think that's too well thought out," Helie said last week of the study. "It's kind of a simple way to say we're going to analyze, doing the in-depth analysis that really should have been done."

The 80-page Glatting Jackson study cited 62 other reports and studies.

Jax Exum, the consultant who wrote it, said in an interview that the corridors have to serve as habitat to be effective.

"We don't confine our perspective to what may be occurring in some portion of Florida," said Exum, who has a doctorate in wildlife ecology from Auburn University. "The science is relevant, and there are some universal truths about natural resources that aren't relegated to research done in Florida."

Conflicting aims

But Mulieri and Mariano said that at 2,200 feet, the county was providing habitat when they expected to set up narrower routes only for travel.

And Mulieri, whose district includes the Dorsett land, said Shady Hills needed the jobs that would come with office and retail businesses that will be part of the development.

But a panel for the Urban Land Institute had finished a report in August saying Pasco had already given the green light for more building than its growth could fulfill over the next years, specifically in central Pasco.

It was just one contradiction among many over the Dorsett decision — starting with the advice from the county's top staff to wait to hear the science.

County Administrator John Gallagher and growth management chief Sam Steffey came to the meeting offering a compromise. Approve the Dorsett plan, but with a condition: If the board backed the 2,200-foot policy after hearing about the science at an upcoming workshop, the policy would be in effect for the Dorsett property.

No support.

County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder, a former development lawyer who also is Florida Bar certified in government law, warned the commission would set a precedent when the next developer came to them. Despite what Helie and Mason said, trying to reverse the decision would "clearly" invite a lawsuit for damages if they imposed tougher standards later.

Roll call vote: 5-0, including commissioners Ann Hildebrand, Ted Schrader and Mulieri, who were on the board when it accepted the 2002 study setting up the corridors.

After-the-fact decision

On Tuesday, the board will have a workshop to discuss how to make the critical linkages into law. Commissioners could unofficially decide the fate of the proposal.

Few bets are on corridors that are 2,200 feet wide.

"Why are they doing all this if they are going to ignore it all for Bell Fruit Company?" activist Rametta said, referring to the Dorsett family company. "They're letting all these ordinances unravel. Little by little they're just jerking around."

Unless the 2,200-foot widths could be justified for the county policy, Schrader said at the end of the Sept. 8 meeting, "I see this board really directing them to something much less than that."

Despite Steinsnyder's assessment, Mason said a precedent probably exists on only similar properties.

If the elected officials "were convinced of the science, they'd have a better feeling policywise" on a wider corridor, Gallagher said. As for other developers asking for a break on the corridor later? "We get that in zoning all the time," Gallagher said.

In fact, Hank King, owner of ranchland near Cypress Creek, mentioned this week he heard about the decision. Speaking to the board Tuesday on an unrelated dispute, he said he might have land to be rezoned in a corridor area in the future.

He planned to take the commission's decision into account.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.

232 Acres of wildlife corridor originally proposed on Dorsett family land. 131 Acres of wildlife corridor approved on Dorsett family land. 2,200 Original minimum corridor width in feet 1,600 Approved minimum corridor width in feet

232 Acres of wildlife corridor originally proposed on Dorsett family land 131 Acres of wildlife corridor approved on Dorsett family land 2,200 Original minimum corridor width in feet 1,600 Approved minimum corridor width in feet

>>What's next?

Meeting Tuesday

The Pasco County Commission will have a workshop at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on its proposed ordinance to establish wildlife corridors. The meeting will be in the commission chamber in the West Pasco Government Center, 7530 Little Road, New Port Richey.

Break for Shady Hills landowner gives wildlife less room to roam 10/11/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 13, 2008 2:06pm]
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