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County mulls buying, preserving land near Starkey wilderness park

NEW PORT RICHEY — Commissioners this week added two large tracts next to the Starkey Wilderness Preserve to a list of properties the county might buy for conservation.

Both parcels — roughly 900 acres of the remainder of Starkey Ranch and 519 acres known as the Crockett Lake tract — could be bought with county sales tax revenue or purchased with road money for mitigation on projects such as the Ridge Road extension.

Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker said the properties were added to a "master list of properties that are good environmental land."

Now, county officials will further research the land for their environmental characteristics and negotiate a purchase price. Commissioners still must make a final decision on whether to buy the land.

The Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program is funded exclusively with Penny for Pasco sales tax proceeds that cannot be used on anything besides purchasing environmentally sensitive lands.

The program has purchased 1,400 acres since it was created in 2004. It has also secured roughly 900 acres of conservation easements in which the property stays in private ownership but remains undeveloped. Several state agencies, including the Southwest Florida Water Management District, hold about 100,000 acres of conservation land in Pasco.

"This board has worked really diligently with our staff to buy this environmental land," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri. "We are good stewards of the environment."

Earlier this month, commissioners approved spending $2.4 million to buy 109 acres in Holiday to help create a chain of parks in the southwest corner of the county.

These latest proposed acquisitions are likely months away.

The Starkey family nominated 1,700 acres to the county's environmental lands program, but officials have been negotiating a roughly 900-acre purchase. The land is just south of the Starkey Wilderness Park and would provide a buffer from development for the Starkey wellfield and wildlife in the park.

Much of the tract was the subject of a proposed land deal earlier this summer with the agency known as Swiftmud. Gov. Rick Scott's administration scuttled that sale in June.

If the county buys the property, it would not excuse the Starkeys from providing land for a future county park or school as part of a 2008 development agreement.

Commissioners also considered 519 acres currently owned by Deb Limited Partnership and the NG Development Corp. Part of the old Crockett Lake Ranch, the land sits just north of the proposed Ridge Road extension between the Woodland Hills subdivision in Moon Lake and the Serenova preserve.

Both parcels, along with an 830-acre strip of the 4G Ranch, are options to mitigate wetland destruction caused by the Ridge Road extension. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is accepting public comment on that project until Wednesday and is expected to decide on whether to grant a permit over the next several months.

Though he supports acquiring these two properties, Commissioner Henry Wilson said he wants the commission to decide "when enough is enough of government-purchased land for conservation."

Growth management chief Richard Gehring said the county's long-term strategy is to keep roughly half of the county's land as conservation or agriculture. That leaves roughly 250,000 acres available for development. "It's a lot of dirt," he said.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

County mulls buying, preserving land near Starkey wilderness park 12/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2011 4:31pm]
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