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As Pasco County Commission dawdles, nature is left unprotected

The repetitive nature of Pasco County's inadequate attempts to protect nature is tiresome.

A decade after settling a lawsuit with a promise to set corridors linking open space for wildlife — and four years after a rewrite of its comprehensive plan supposedly formalized that objective — the County Commission has yet to adopt a local ordinance mandating the protections. The original date for the ordinance was the end of 2007 and with a later target date set for 2009.

The result of this tardiness is a theoretical pledge to promote open space with no ability to enforce it. A recent settlement among the county, a landowner in Shady Hills, the state planning agency and environmentalists illustrates the shortcoming: Private landowners can negotiate better terms for development despite objections from the state Department of Community Affairs that more intensive building will narrow open space for animals.

In this instance, the commission, in 2008, approved a change to its comprehensive plan sought by the Bell Fruit Co. to develop 530 acres in Shady Hills. The company successfully sought a less restrictive corridor requirement despite warnings from the county attorney that it could open the door to future landowners seeking to water down the environmental rules.

The Gulf Coast Conservancy objected and the DCA agreed, kicking the land change back to Pasco County to either set the wider corridor of 2,200 feet or pay for yet another scientific study to justify the narrower path. The settlement last month, however, removed the objections and allowed Bell Fruit Co. to proceed with less land for animals. DCA and the conservancy noted the lack of enforcing ordinance muted the arguments for a wider path.

The corridors, also referred to as critical linkages, are intended to preserve open trails for animals to roam between larger tracts of undeveloped land — notably the areas around Tampa Bay Water-owned well fields and other preserved sites.

But, the decadelong pace of adopting the protections is absurd. The impetus for the corridors was the Citizens for Sanity legal challenge to the county's comprehensive land plan. The group sued after opposing the 1999 rezoning of agricultural land into what is now the Oakstead subdivision in Land O'Lakes. At the time, Commissioner Pat Mulieri voted against the rezoning, saying the developers hadn't done appropriate wildlife studies as required by the comprehensive plan. Again, it turned out to be a moot point. The commission had never adopted an ordinance to enforce the required environmental study.

To settle the Citizens for Sanity lawsuit, the county promised changes to its future comprehensive plan including the designated wildlife corridors. It remains an unfulfilled promise and commissioners — only Mulieri and Ann Hildebrand remain from the group that approved the settlement in 2000 — are remiss in not demanding an expedited ordinance.

Foot-dragging and turning a blind eye to the resulting loophole are not characteristics favorable to effective governing.

As Pasco County Commission dawdles, nature is left unprotected 06/24/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 6:47pm]
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