SHADY HILLS — The nearly 2-year-old dispute over a Pasco commission decision to let a developer shrink a wildlife corridor has ended much as it began:
With less room for animals to roam between public lands than a county wildlife study had recommended.
One big reason: The county's nearly decade-old effort to add wildlife protections doesn't yet have much teeth — or enough detail.
The state Department of Community Affairs recently signed off on a settlement agreement with Pasco commissioners, the developers and environmental group Gulf Coast Conservancy.
That agreement has several provisions for the proposed mixed-use project on 530 acres east of the Suncoast Parkway and north of State Road 52, including tying the number of houses approved to job-supporting non-residential development, such as industrial or corporate business parks.
But the most high-profile provision is that state officials are letting stand the commission's original 2008 decision to allow developer Bell Fruit/Zeneda Partners to set aside a much smaller travel route for wildlife than the one outlined in a consultant's 2002 wildlife study.
Previously, state officials had argued that commissioners were undercutting their own wildlife protections by failing to hold the developer to the 2,200-foot-wide corridors called for in the study, which in 2007 was incorporated into the county's land-use plan.
Those corridors, also known as "critical linkages," are supposed to be travel routes for animals moving between public lands separated by development.
The commission's 2008 decision let Bell Fruit and Zeneda shrink by half the portion of a corridor cutting across its 530-acre property after lawyers for the property owners argued it amounted to a taking of their land.
In the end, DCA concluded the county wouldn't have had much ground to stand on if it had required the widest corridor.
The original map in the study that showed the location of the corridors "is very general, it doesn't have specific boundary lines," said Mike McDaniel, DCA's chief of comprehensive planning.
McDaniel added that he's now convinced that what Bell Fruit will set aside — some wetlands, a 100-foot-wide buffer to the west and a 22-acre upland area to the east — will do the job.
"We're comfortable that the critical linkage is adequate," he said. "As a matter of fact, adopting critical linkages like this is unusual. It's not necessarily something that's required. It's sort of a step above and beyond."
It's a step that Pasco had to take because of a 2000 court settlement. Citizens for Sanity had sued Pasco County the year before, arguing that officials were approving too much growth without following protections for wildlife. One solution was wildlife corridors.
Though Pasco commissioned the wildlife study, officials never got around to passing an ordinance that would have enforced some of its provisions.
A draft version showed up in 2007; another version appeared last year but some commissioners continued to have problems with what they saw as unfair burdens on landowners. Last year, commissioners added language to their land-use plan that says the width, alignment and location of the corridors may be modified or reduced.
Gulf Coast Conservancy's Mac Davis, who signed off on the settlement agreement, said he did so only because he didn't really have a choice.
"The fault lies with the commission's absolute refusal to consider a wildlife ordinance," he said. "I am disheartened by the actions of the county commission, because they haven't done what they agreed to do in 2000."
Commissioners last year approved changes to the land-use plan that provide some flexibility on the width of the corridors and establishes more clearly that the county will regulate corridors through the local land-use ordinance. That ordinance is expected to come before commissioners this year, said Pasco planning director Richard Gehring.
Commissioner Ted Schrader said part of the hold-up has been that the board has juggled other ordinance rewrites and changed county attorneys in recent years.
"I guess the real hold up is some of the board members are struggling with the width of the corridor," he said.
Under the proposed ordinance, those who own property within the routes can build what they're already entitled to under existing zoning regulations. The restrictions would kick in when property owners within or adjacent to those routes want to increase the density of development.
Schrader said he thinks that provision answers concerns about property rights.
"I was ready to press ahead, but I guess some of my colleagues didn't have the comfort level to press ahead," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.