Gulf Coast Conservancy says land swap would hurt black bears in Aripeka

ARIPEKA — An environmental group is getting ready to fight a proposed state land swap that it says would benefit a private developer while destroying the black bear population.

The Gulf Coast Conservancy is asking its members to write the Southwest Florida Water Management District's Coastal Rivers Basin Board and urge it to reject the proposed swap of nearly 90 acres to developers of SunWest Harbourtowne for 396 acres south of the planned beach community.

The developers also offered to donate an additional 849 acres to the water management district.

The basin board meets Thursday. Its votes are not binding, but its recommendations are considered by the water district's governing board, which has the final say.

"If approved, the swap will allow developers to include a private golf course in their proposed SunWest Harbourtowne," the conservancy said last week in a news release. "Scientists who have studied the local bear population have concluded that the resulting loss of core black bear habitat could result in the extinction of the Chassahowitzka bear population, the smallest independent population known in the United States. The future of these bears will be decided with this decision."

SunWest Harbourtowne wants to build 2,400 homes on 2,263 acres of a limestone mine sitting right on the Hudson coast, south of the Hernando County line.

The project's conceptual plan also includes a marina village and resort, a 167-acre golf course, a hotel and convention center, and 33 acres of stores.

The property it would acquire from Swiftmud is called the Wooley property. The water district bought it in 2001 and received money from the state's Florida Forever fund to pay for it.

When SunWest applied for development approval in 2006, the district proposed the swap on the grounds that a development to the north would isolate the Wooley parcel and sever bear habitat. A trade would increase the value of the district's existing holdings.

Since then, Pasco County's environmental lands acquisition program acquired and preserved the parcel to the north, where impending development had been cited as isolating Wooley.

"As a consequence, the Wooley property is now more strategic as black bear habitat and corridor than when SWFWMD originally purchased it," the conservancy group said.

Swap called benefit

Swiftmud still stands by its decision to swap the land. Eric Sutton, who heads the district's division of land resources, said a study showed several bears on land the district would acquire as part of the trade.

The water district wants to make the swap because it would protect more species and not focus narrowly on just one, Sutton said.

He said three bears, one male and two females, have been sighted on the parcel that Swiftmud would acquire under the swap.

"This will be a benefit," said Sutton, who said district officials have met with conservancy members to explain the issue.

Developers for SunWest also say they want to cooperate with the conservancy.

"We met with the Florida Gulf Coast Conservancy and discussed their concerns regarding bear habitat," project manager Bob Carpenter said.

Carpenter said the developers agreed to provide a number of safeguards, including special trash cans, lighting, signs and education for residents and visitors.

The group also asked for access and corridors that developers prepared as part of their submission to government agencies for approvals.

"We're very disappointed that despite our efforts, despite the fact that our land swap with the Water Management District includes 1,266 acres of valuable coastal and upland habitat that is deemed environmentally significant by all levels of government agency, they are still opposed to the project."

Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Gulf Coast Conservancy says land swap would hurt black bears in Aripeka 02/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 9:41am]

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