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Developers, politicians reach deal on bear habitat, but nature loses

Who looks out for Florida's wildlife in Aripeka? It is hard to tell amid buck-passing and alluring public-private partnership offers. The loser last week was the endangered black bear when a private developer gained 90 acres of protected land — and bear habitat — from a public agency.

Under the deal, the Southwest Florida Water Management District trades 90 acres of prized bear habitat to the developers of SunWest Harbourtowne in Aripeka in exchange for 396 acres targeted for residential construction and another 849 acres of mostly wetlands along the coast.

Clearly, bear habitat was a secondary consideration to ease land management and private sector entitlement. Consider:

Water management officials will not weigh in on the environmental appropriateness of putting a golf course and thousands of homes on sensitive land that is habitat for an endangered species. It's not their job to make land-use decisions, they say.

Likewise, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will not take a stand on the land swap. Nobody asked, the commission said.

And sometime in the future Pasco County commissioners will have to rule on SunWest Harbourtowne's development of regional impact proposal. Their decision will come after taking from the developers $3 million and land for a waterfront park in a lawsuit settlement, receiving promises of shared access to a newly dredged channel to the Gulf of Mexico, and hearing their chairman tout the economic and tourism benefits of the project. It is an invitation to question commission impartiality in what should be a quasi-judicial setting.

Last week, the water management district defended the land swap, saying the transaction became more inviting after plans for the adjoining parcel changed. The 90 acres, abutting mine land originally targeted as a county preserve, would be isolated from other protected land by the 2,620-acre SunWest Harbourtowne residential, commercial, golfing and marina development.

The private developers gain by using the 90 acres for its golf course, gaining additional frontage on Aripeka Road and disposing of land outside the DRI boundaries.

The loser is Mother Nature. The 90 acres is toward the southern end of the Greater Chassahowitzka Ecosystem extending through Citrus, Hernando and northern Pasco counties and it sits directly across Aripeka Road from 210 acres of black bear habitat Pasco County acquired in 2007. We still believe building a wildlife crossing beneath Aripeka Road is a better alternative than swapping away part of the bear habitat.

The bears, according to Kipp Frohlich of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will suffer from any development in the largely rural area.

"There is a net loss to bear habitat no matter how we arrange it," he told the water district governing board prior to Tuesday's unanimous approval.

Indeed. It is logic that should justify additional environmental scrutiny of this swap, not a rationale for explaining it away.

Developers, politicians reach deal on bear habitat, but nature loses 04/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 4, 2009 11:24am]
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