Pasco County to consider ordinance on wildlife corridors

Not quite a year ago, Pasco County commissioners voted to let a Shady Hills landowner set aside less space for wildlife than their own consultant recommended.

At the time, they questioned the science behind the consultant's study: How much room does wildlife need to move from one preserve to another?

Now, according to a proposed ordinance finally making its way to the board, this is the answer: Exactly what the consultant's study said.

County staffers are moving ahead with the ordinance, which spells out how wide the corridors must be and thus puts teeth into the wildlife protections agreed to in a 2000 legal settlement and laid out in Pasco's state-mandated land plan.

Since the issue erupted last year, county environmental officials have been doing the first on-the-ground inventory of what types of animals and plants are found within the corridors. Their findings include the eastern indigo snake, pale green orchid, Florida black bear, limpkins and whooping cranes.

On Tuesday, commissioners will consider a bevy of comprehensive plan changes — from map revisions to a list of recreation uses that would be okay in the corridors — necessary before they could adopt the ordinance. Public hearings on the draft ordinance are expected to begin later this year.

The seven wildlife corridors — known as "critical linkages" — are intended to give deer and other animals a way to travel between public lands separated by development.

The longer the corridor, the wider it should be, ecologists say. The longest width proposed under the ordinance is 2,200 feet wide, or roughly half a mile.

According to a presentation that county officials gave to commissioners last month, some experts say the corridors should be a tenth as wide as they are long.

By that measure, the 10-mile corridor connecting J.B. Starkey Preserve to Cross Bar Ranch should be a mile wide instead of the half-mile proposed in the ordinance.

That particular corridor took center stage last September when commissioners, over the recommendations of their staff, agreed to let Bell Fruit Co. and Zeneda companies shrink by half the portion of the path cutting across their 530-acre Shady Hill property.

Though the county land plan incorporated the 2002 wildlife study that recommended the corridor widths, the commission did not have an ordinance that specified how to enforce them.

After the environmental group Gulf Coast Conservancy objected, the state Department of Community Affairs rejected the commissioners' decision, saying it lacked scientific justification and was inconsistent with the county's comprehensive plan.

Bell Fruit and the Department of Community Affairs, as well as the county and Gulf Coast Conservancy, are now involved in negotiations over that issue and others. If no settlement is reached, the case could go to an administrative judge, according to department spokesman James Miller.

Ordinance flexibility?

The proposed ordinance lays out a number of ways that property owners could be compensated if the corridor cuts through their land, including the transfer of density credits to build additional housing outside of the corridor.

Under the ordinance, the corridor would not upend any buildings already in place within the corridors. And those who own property within the routes can build what they're already entitled to under existing regulations.

The ordinance kicks in when property owners within or adjacent to those routes want to increase the density or the intensity of the development.

"What we're talking about in these areas are lands that are difficult to develop anyway," said county biologist Bob Tietz.

But it's still not clear how the ordinance will fare.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who led the charge on Bell Fruit's behalf last year, said she was pleased to see the draft ordinance has more details on how the county would deal with compensating landowners. But she said she's not sure yet how she will vote.

She said she's heard from property owners along U.S. 41 who are concerned what the corridor will do to their property values.

"It's a balance between environmental and property rights," she said.

Commissioner Michael Cox said he supports the corridors but is still trying to negotiate that balance between environmental benefits and property rights.

"I'm struggling with it," he said.

He said he's still not sold on a "steadfast" width, particularly in cases where the corridor cuts right through a piece of property. He said he thinks the ordinance should have greater flexibility to accommodate property owners.

But he acknowledged what the scientific studies and environmental experts have been telling the county: When it comes to corridors, the wider the better.

"If the animals had their choice," he said, "none of us would live here."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco County to consider ordinance on wildlife corridors 08/09/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 9, 2009 7:01pm]

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