NEW PORT RICHEY — County commissioners made it clear Monday that they are not backing off a promise to set aside space for wildlife to move from one preserve to another.
But they wonder: How wide does such a corridor really need to be? A county-hired consultant has recommended 2,200 feet — nearly half a mile wide — but commissioners are skeptical.
"We need more discussion," said Commissioner Jack Mariano. "That (consultant's report) wasn't enough credibility for me."
So today, all eyes will be on Jay Exum, who holds a doctorate in wildlife ecology and is director of environmental services in the Orlando office of Glatting Jackson, the firm that the county hired in 2002 to do the study.
Exum's science was called into question last month, when representatives of the Brooksville-based Bell Fruit Co. pushed for cutting in half the portion of the wildlife corridor on its Shady Hills property, near the Suncoast Parkway.
After some discussion about whether commissioners would create a precedent by shrinking the corridor before hearing from Exum, commissioners unanimously granted Bell Fruit's request.
The decision angered environmentalists, some of whom have written letters to the state Department of Community Affairs, which must sign off on the deal. A decision is expected by the end of October, a DCA spokesman said.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who pushed for a vote on Bell Fruit before the hearing was over, has borne the brunt of environmentalists' criticism. But she said she remains an "animal lover" who supported the landscape ordinance, and is proud that she entered politics by opposing a hazardous waste incinerator.
Mulieri said she has looked at other wildlife corridor studies, and noted Indiana's wildlife agency recommends that corridors be only 50 and 200 feet wide.
"I still don't think 2,200 feet is needed," she said Monday.
But Exum said last week he stands by his report.
Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said he will be eager to hear about the science behind Exum's recommendation.
"What some of the other commissioners have to continue to remember is that part of our settlement to the comprehensive plan challenge was to establish a wildlife corridor," Schrader said. "We certainly don't want to go back down that path again and face another challenge."
Schrader said he wants to know how 2,200 feet was established as a necessary width. He also wants to know if less can be adopted without putting the agreement in jeopardy.
He said Bell Fruit's land had been used for citrus farming before freezes prompted the family to plant pine trees.
"Due to those conditions," he said, "the Bell Fruit Co. created this area that is now being designated as wildlife habitat."
Schrader, who grew up in east Pasco, said he remembers an abandoned railway near Interstate 75. The area is now overgrown.
"I'm seeing wildlife using that area as a wildlife corridor," he said. "It's nowhere near 2,200 feet wide."
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.