NEW PORT RICHEY — When the County Commission agreed with a developer and shrank a wildlife corridor, the board didn't just make a questionable decision — it acted in haste.
That's the judgment of Democrats Terri Conroy and Ginny Miller as they try to oust Republicans Ann Hildebrand and Jack Mariano from the County Commission.
On Sept. 8, the board cut in half the part of a 2,200-foot-wide corridor that would run across a 530-acre tract in Shady Hills. The corridor, developed from a 2002 study, is supposed to help deer and other wildlife travel between well fields and conservation land. Board members questioned the science behind the route.
But county staffers had urged the commission to make a decision contingent on results from an Oct. 14 workshop, when the county's consultants would explain the justification for the wide corridor. The commission decided not to wait.
"My criticism is that the County Commission decided to take a vote on a particular piece of property without waiting for all that scientific information to be presented to them," Miller told a crowd of more than 100 people last week during a forum at Timber Greens Country Club in New Port Richey.
Miller, a former New Port Richey City Council member, is running against Mariano for the District 5 seat in northwest Pasco. Conroy, a former permitting manager for a housing company, faces Hildebrand in the southwest Pasco District 3. Both are countywide elections.
Hildebrand, seeking her seventh term, and Mariano, seeking his second, defended their decisions, saying the county has protected land for wildlife. Mariano said he's not convinced the corridor needed to be as big as planned, saying more research is needed.
"We've got to take the information that we get in, but I don't think you want us to absorb it all and accept it all as fact," Mariano said. "I think you want us to discuss it."
Mariano and the other board members have questioned the scientific basis for such a wide route.
But County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder warned that shrinking the route for the Shady Hills property, owned by Bell Fruit Co. and Zeneda Partners, creates a precedent for future landowners to carve up the corridor.
The county developed the wildlife corridor network as part of a settlement from a 1999 lawsuit. Pasco spent nine years and at least $282,000 developing the policy, which was based on an 80-page consultant's report.
In 2002, the commission, including Hildebrand but not Mariano, voted to accept that study.
Both later endorsed corridors in the county's longterm development plan, though a width was never specified.
Mariano said the Oct. 14 workshop left him unconvinced the route needed to be 2,200 feet wide. Other agencies use 50- to 200-foot corridors, he noted. He said the county only intended to give animals enough room to move, not a habitat.
He and Hildebrand also said the route had other problems: a subdivision jutted into it, and State Road 52 went across it.
But ecologists and the report's author, Jay Exum of Orlando, say having a wider habitat area is necessary for the corridors to function properly.
"We have to protect our wildlife," Conroy said. "This is very important."
Hildebrand said the board has acted to protect the routes, including an approval last week to spend $2.5-million to buy 214 acres and put an additional 384 acres under conservation protection. Part of that land falls under part of the same corridor.
"That idea we will connect the well fields with conservation properties, that is exactly what we have done and are doing," she said.
But the Democratic challengers say the decision to shrink part of the corridor figures into how the board has mishandled development laws and planning. Miller said it's "important and indicative" of Mariano's tenure. They say they would have made sure to fully research the issue before voting on the project.
"I think I expect my county commissioner and anyone else to do all the research they need to do before they make an important decision like this," she told the Timber Greens crowd.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6232.