Twenty years after rejecting a chance to preserve 65 acres of coastal land, County Commissioners get a mulligan today when they will be asked to add land now known as Rocky Creek to its environmental lands acquisition program.
The commission certainly shouldn't pass up the opportunity a second time. But, it should be scrupulous in the due diligence work that lies ahead because of the overly generous settlement the land owners received previously from the city of Port Richey over a zoning dispute.
Collectively, Rocky Creek is two parcels with a taxable value from the Pasco Property Appraiser's Office of $820,000. But, state laws requiring consideration of a land's "highest and best use'' likely means the vacant residential land along the coast land will be accompanied by a significantly higher price tag.
Thank Port Richey's 2006 council members who turned a blind eye to legitimate environmental and traffic concerns raised by residents in 2004 and instead blessed an oversized development in a coastal high-hazard area.
One parcel, 15 acres acquired by the Port Richey 15 Property Trust in 2003 for $296,000, is zoned for single-family homes and has a taxable value of $218,400. A 50-acre parcel to the north, owned by Altamonte G & M Inc., has a taxable value of $601,000.
The Altamonte property became subject to litigation after the Port Richey City Council approved it for just 13 residences — one home per buildable acre — in 2004, down from the 43 units sought by the owners. They sued, contending civil rights violations. A settlement in 2006, after Altamonte's legal representative helped elect a new council majority, gave the owners permission to build a minimum of 41 units, plus 60 condominiums and a 50 boat slips. Later, Altamonte proposed building 240 condominiums in a 210-foot tower on the Port Richey 15 Property Trust land because the unsparing settlement terms also applied to that parcel.
Coincidentally, in 2006, the nonprofit Trust for Public Land nominated the parcels for acquisition by the county through the Penny-for-Pasco financed Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program. There was little progress initially, but dropping real estate values and a stagnant home-building industry has helped rekindle interest in taking the land into public domain.
It is not the first time that has been considered. Altamonte and the Port Richey 15 Trust acquired the land, in separate purchases, from the Carl Behnke Trust earlier this decade. Behnke, an Odessa rancher, attempted to sell the land in the late 1980s for use as a coastal park. The property, then called Cotee Point because of its proximity to the mouth of the Pithlachascotee River, drew a $776,000 offer from the state, but the county, in 1989, declined Behnke's request to add $500,000 to the transaction. At the time, the county focused its efforts on acquiring land near Anclote Key and the property that today is the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park.
Preserving the property off Ebbtide Lane in Port Richey, with forested uplands, wetlands, saltwater marshes and mangroves, is a laudable goal and more beneficial to the public than a condo tower. The commission should add it to its list of environmentally sensitive land worth saving.