It was a question over semantics, but one that carries weight in the debate over wildlife protections enforced on private land. It was a question over semantics, but one that carries weight in the debate over wildlife protections enforced on private land: Does "modifying" something include "reducing" it?
The question came up Tuesday as Pasco County commissioners discussed what their land-use plan should say about wildlife corridors, which are intended to provide habitat and safe travel routes for deer and other animals moving from one preserve to another. A wildlife study incorporated in the county's land-use plan calls for corridors as wide as 2,200 feet — nearly half a mile — which has caused some property owners and commissioners to bristle.
As part of the latest proposal, county staff members suggested language saying the width, alignment and location of the corridors "may be modified."
Commissioners decided Tuesday to add the word "reduced."
Just one word, but it held significance to those backing the corridor widths laid out in a 2002 wildlife study: They say the re-wording signals to landowners and developers that size is the most negotiable point.
"I think the signal is fairly clear," county biologist Bob Tietz told the Times.
Local environmentalists had stronger words.
"I was disappointed so much emphasis was placed on reducing the corridor by the current incumbents," said Aripeka environmentalist Mac Davis.
At the meeting, Land O'Lakes activist Clay Colson told commissioners: "You're just wanting to capitulate to landowners."
But commissioners say they just wanted to add clarity.
An earlier version of the ordinance said the corridors could be "reduced" or "realigned." Commissioner Michael Cox noted on Tuesday the proposal now said "modified."
"Why the change?" he asked.
Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein said that officials decided the word "modified" was all-encompassing and included "reduced."
Cox said "modified" was a vague term. He proposed adding the word "reduced" back into the wording, along with the word "modified." The other commissioners agreed. They did not add back "realign" or clarify the term "modify" anywhere else.
Cox said in an interview that he was trying to be transparent about the county's intent.
"If it means that, say it," he said. "I can see people standing up there and saying 'It says modifies, not reduce.' "
Establishing the corridors, also known as "critical linkages," is part of the wildlife protections to which the county agreed in a 2000 legal settlement with environmental groups.
The idea is to have connections between publicly owned preserves versus a patchwork quilt of stand-alone habitats. The plan outlines seven corridors around the county, along with various options for compensating property owners for the lost land by allowing them to build more units elsewhere.
A 2002 study referenced in the land-use plan calls for widths of up to 2,200 feet, depending on the length and location of the corridor, but that has brought objections from landowners and commissioners alike.
Complicating matters: There is still not an approved ordinance that enforces the corridor widths spelled out in the wildlife study.
That has allowed developers to argue for less restrictive corridors. In a high-profile 2008 case involving Shady Hills property owned by Bell Fruit Co. and Zeneda companies, commissioners agreed to reduce the corridor to as little as 100 feet, a decision later overturned by the Department of Community Affairs. That case is now pending.
A proposed ordinance, which kicks in if a property owner wants to change the zoning and increase the density, is expected to go to public hearings in January.
One step in a process
The commission's approval last week of the revised wording — adding "reduced" — is just one step in a long process. Now the amendments to the county's land-use plan go to the state Department of Community Affairs, which can check off on them or send them back to the county with objections.
Cox noted that the proposed wildlife corridor ordinance sets the widths in stone, which stands in conflict with the wiggle room that commissioners propose giving themselves through the changes to the land-use plan.
He said the proposed ordinance would have to change to reflect the potential for landowners to ask for changes.
"I think the intent is to have the corridor at a certain width," he said, "but there are some places where that wouldn't be feasible."
At Tuesday's meeting, a couple of landowners asked the commissioners to reconsider the corridor restrictions on their properties.
But one property owner, Earl Bartholomew, picked up on something about the new wording.
At a meeting this month, he had complained about the corridor restrictions that could take up a chunk of his property if he ever decides to develop it. But on Tuesday, he approached the podium.
"If I'm hearing this right," he said, "we're meeting at the 50-yard line?"
Commissioners nodded. Bartholomew grinned again and thanked them.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.