Saturday, June 23, 2018
News Roundup

Swiftmud land sales might be a good thing

As preserved natural land goes, it's not exactly the Grand Canyon.

The most outstanding feature I could see on the half-acre parcel just north of Centralia Road was a slightly larger-than-average live oak.

Not that it's bad habitat. You could imagine the dense woods and palmettos supporting a bear or two. It's just that they'd probably feel a bit hemmed in by the stucco houses to the north and west and by the cleared lots immediately to the east.

Even Fritz Musselmann, who helped make the deal for this lot — part of the Southwest Florida Water Management District's Annutteliga Hammock project in northern Hernando County — said he didn't see a problem with unloading it.

"I think it's okay to surplus some of those scattered properties," said Musselmann, the district's former land resources director.

Which, it seems, the district just might do.

Last year, Swiftmud announced a plan to sell selected pieces of the 261,000 acres of natural land it solely controls.

In Swiftmud-speak, these parcels would be "surplused."

This sounded like one of those terrifying bureaucratic terms designed to gloss over a potential catastrophe. In our beat-up, rundown, paved-over state, how could there be a surplus of natural land?

But the folks at Swiftmud promised that they would approach the process carefully, that the only properties they would consider selling really would be surplus — isolated parcels here and there that do little or nothing to protect habitat or water resources.

More than a year later, I have to admit, it seems as though they're keeping their word. So far, the district has identified only .5 percent of its land holdings — 1,361 acres — for potential sale, said spokeswoman Robyn Felix.

The Weekiwachee Preserve, the district's landmark property in Hernando, seems completely safe. As for the hammock, she said, Swiftmud is working on a "strategy for consolidating (it) into a core area."

I don't know exactly what that means, but if I had to guess I'd say it has something to do with the way the hammock property was acquired in the first place.

In the 1990s, when the northern part of the vast Royal Highlands subdivision was still almost completely empty, Swiftmud could, and did, pick up parcels on the cheap.

The idea, Musselmann said, was to string enough of them together to create a natural bridge between larger preserves and forests. But before this could happen, the price of land climbed, houses started popping up in the middle of the hoped-for corridor, and those half-, 1- and 2-acre lots were left stranded and — environmentally speaking — pretty much useless.

So, yes, selling them might be acceptable, but only under one condition: The money they bring should be used to expand — to really consolidate — the existing, larger hammock parcels.

District policy says that most of the money left over from its surplus land sales should go back into acquiring more land, though it doesn't specify where. Hernando County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes has already sent a letter to Swiftmud urging it to "maintain the integrity" of its environmental land holdings in Hernando.

He should send a followup saying that if the district takes value out of the county, in the form of lot sales, it needs to put it right back. And he should tell Swiftmud where, specifically, it needs to put it — into parcels that will add to the biggest chunk of the Annutteliga project.

It's right across U.S. 19 from the massive Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, which is big enough to be home to at least a few black bears.

It's prime water recharge area for the spring-fed, gorgeous and environmentally vulnerable Chassahowitzka River, which kind of is this region's Grand Canyon.

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