For its bears and bobcats to survive, Hernando must plan growth well

As Hernando County planner Pat McNeese pointed out wistfully and repeatedly at a workshop Monday evening, not many members of the public showed up.

And it was important for people to be there, though I'm not sure the jargon of planners helped their cause.

The Hernando Planning and Zoning Commission met to talk about the periodic rewriting of the county's comprehensive plan, a process that is just starting and will stretch over the next couple of years. It is accomplished through something called an evaluation and appraisal report, otherwise known as an EAR or, more often, as just a plain old "ear.''

Would you be willing to cancel dinner plans in the hope of contributing to an "ear-based amendment?" Probably not.

On the other hand, you might show up for the chance to talk about how the county will grow in the future and — this was Monday's subject — whether this growth will give wildlife a fighting chance to survive.

Wild animals, especially large ones such as bears and bobcats, need to be able to move by way of unspoiled corridors from one tract of preserved land to another.

And Hernando, according to state wildlife biologists, has some of the most important bridges of natural land in Florida, including the one leading from tracts of the Withlacoochee State Forest in the center of the county to the coastal Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

The old plan was to buy up these links or to pay their owners to keep them natural.

But with only $19 million set aside for this purpose in the current state budget, and only about $5 million in the county's environmentally sensitive lands fund, this is looking less likely all the time.

So the new plan is to save this land through planning designations.

To which I'm tempted to say, good luck.

Because, in this political climate, is classifying a piece of property as a critical habit link really going to stop the County Commission from approving it for a subdivision? Probably not. And will landowners sit by as their development rights are compromised by, for example, a designation of "conservation land"? No way. And won't the commission take their side? I'd almost guarantee it.

Unlike 2005, the year of the last comp plan rewrite, residents aren't constantly passing cleared moonscapes of new subdivision sites. They're less likely to send their kids off to classrooms that look like portable storage pods. They're more likely to be worried about jobs than the paving over of habitat.

And people who are still worried about wildlife might be forgiven for looking at our governor-elect and the Legislature and wondering if there's really any point. Our state government is now hostile to the state Department of Community Affairs. The recent letter the DCA sent the county in opposition to the misguided Quarry Preserve project may turn out to be one of its last defiant gasps.

So maybe that's why more people didn't show up Monday.

But the development machine will eventually start humming again. Wild areas will be threatened. People will care, and if enough of them do, so will our elected officials. When and if this happens, it will be nice to have some guidelines in place. Or, if you prefer, a nice, well-crafted ear-based amendment.

For its bears and bobcats to survive, Hernando must plan growth well 11/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 6:57pm]

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