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Musselmann leaves legacy of preserving land, goodwill

Here's what Jake Varn, lawyer to landowners and developers, has to say about Fritz Musselmann, who retired this week after 33 years of acquiring and managing environmentally sensitive land for the Southwest Florida Water Management District:

"Fritz is a fine fellow, an A-plus," said Varn, who represented the owners of Oak Sound; this former development site became the founding parcel for the district's Weekiwachee Preserve, which now covers more than 11,000 acres in western Hernando and Pasco counties.

"He's very careful, very professional. And if people have an image about what a bunch of slackers people in government are, Fritz doesn't fall into that category at all. On top of that, he's a nice person."

And this is the view of Leslie Neumann, longtime member of the Gulf Coast Conservancy, which opposed the development of Oak Sound and urged the district to buy it 1994:

"We always knew that Fritz had the same values and aspirations as we did. He really is a true environmentalist," Neumann said. "For his sake, we're not sorry he's leaving; but for our sake, we're very sorry to see him go"

Yes, everyone always seemed to like and respect Musselmann, which in one way seems only natural. Musselmann, 57, the district's land resources director, has been part of its land-buying program since 1975 and has run it since 1981.

Property rights advocates usually approved of the district's purchases because they believe landowners should be compensated for limiting development; environmentalists liked the idea of natural areas being permanently preserved.

Also, the district has distributed a total of more than $500-million to buy land from the kind of powerful landowners Varn represents, and mostly for natural refuges adored by people like Neumann.

Before we go any further, here is a partial list of the gems Musselmann secured for the district, a glimpse of his profound impact on the landscape of west central Florida:

Weeki Wachee Springs and 530 acres surrounding it in Hernando; the 16,000-acre Flying Eagle Ranch in Citrus; the 19,500-acre Starkey Wilderness Preserve in Pasco; and 115,000 acres of the Green Swamp spanning four counties.

Altogether, the district has protected 435,000 acres and 305 miles of rivers and streams since 1975. Though, to me, it's hard to imagine a more satisfying legacy, all I could get the famously low-key Musselmann to say about it is this:

"I know that what I have been doing for the better part of my life is a good thing."

And, though he didn't quite come out and say this either, his job was nowhere near as easy as he made it seem.

Florida's wildly fluctuating real estate market is a challenge to everyone in his line of work; skyrocketing prices during the most recent real estate boom, for example, made the funds available for environmental purchases seem hopelessly inadequate.

Now that the market has collapsed and tax revenues have plummeted, the state fund for environmental land buys may be raided to make up for the budget shortfall.

Also, I realized, Musselmann had as many opportunities to alienate the Varns and the Neumanns of the world as to please them.

Some agencies in Florida have been condemned for paying too much for land with limited environmental value. Others have developed reputations for trying to pay less than property is worth.

"If you were stealing it for the little old ladies or paying too much to your friends in the development business," Varn said, "those things will come back and haunt you.

"For him to be able to strike that balance and to last that long without anything major going wrong on his watch is remarkable.''

How remarkable?

I asked Neumann if she could think of anything other than Musselmann's job performance that she and Varn agreed on.

She thought about it for a few seconds and said, "No."

Musselmann leaves legacy of preserving land, goodwill 01/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 3, 2009 10:52am]
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