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Pasco County, Swiftmud look to buy land where hunting scares neighbors

LAND O'LAKES — For more than three years, Parkway Boulevard homeowners have watched hunters disappear into the thin stretch of privately owned woods between their back yards and a vast public nature preserve.

Then came the gunfire — loud enough to make parents worry about stray bullets and to jolt even the hard-of-hearing awake in the morning. Some residents reported wounded deer wandering into the neighborhood.

"It took away from the serenity of our homes," said resident Patrick Falcon, one of a number of residents who have complained to public agencies for years.

Now the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Pasco County are teaming up to solve the problem — by buying out the property owner.

His name is familiar — former Pasco County sheriff John M. Short.

The water district, commonly known as Swiftmud, plans to pay Short $90,000 to acquire the roughly 52 acres running the length of Parkway Boulevard, which is in Lake Padgett Estates East.

Swiftmud would take ownership of 32 acres that are adjacent to the district's 7,400-acre Cypress Creek Preserve, where hunting is prohibited.

Pasco County would take the remaining land and a canal that is also part of the property.

County officials plan to transfer the land to the homeowners whose back yards touch the properties and the canal to the homeowners association. County commissioners Tuesday asked their staff to see if homeowners would be willing to split the surveying costs.

"This seems to be the key to solving it," said Chairwoman Pat Mulieri, who has fielded complaints over the years. "These people were worried. The bullets could ricochet."

The deal is contingent on Swiftmud's board of directors approving the deal at its Feb. 22 meeting.

The $90,000 purchase price was negotiated based on the value of the eastern 32 acres that the district would keep, according to Swiftmud records. A 2008 appraisal put the value at $370,000.

But even a $90,000 price tag will make Short one of the few land sellers actually turning a profit these days: He picked up the parcels at tax deed sale in 2004 at a total of nearly $16,450.

Short did not return a phone message Wednesday. Then Gov. Bob Graham removed Short from office in 1984 after he was indicted on criminal charges. He was later cleared of the charges.

Parkway Boulevard residents who have complained over the years have been told that officials' hands are tied.

Pasco County once had an ordinance banning gunfire within 300 feet of a home, but that ordinance was null and void. State wildlife officials have told them that the hunters were within their rights.

And Swiftmud told residents that it had to grant Short or his guests access to his property since it would otherwise be land-locked.

"It appears that the adjacent owner has the right to hunt on his land regardless of its (location near) dwellings," Swiftmud executive director Dave Moore wrote to the homeowners association in February 2007. "The issue then boils down to property rights."

Residents have complained to officials that hunters appear to be luring animals from the district's preserve.

Asked Wednesday whether that was the case, Swiftmud spokesman Mike Molligan said, "Could be."

But he cited land management as the district's main motivation in buying the 32 acres already adjacent to the preserve.

Hunting is not allowed at the preserve because of the nearby residential development.

Short's property "is being operated in a way that is inconsistent with the way the preserve is being operated," he said.

The deal came as a total package for all of Short's parcels, however, and the 20 acres that Pasco will take had no conservation value for the district.

Molligan said he wasn't sure why the district didn't pick up the parcels when they went up for tax deed sale.

Falcon, the Lake Padgett homeowner, said Wednesday he was glad to hear about the potential deal, though he wondered whether officials could have acted sooner.

He said he's worried over children leaving Pine View Elementary School, who sometimes like to detour through the woods. And just a few weeks ago, the early morning gunfire jolted his 87-year-old mother out of bed.

"I'm not against guns," he said, "but this is just some simple, common sense."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco County, Swiftmud look to buy land where hunting scares neighbors 02/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 10:03pm]
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