A decade after it was first promised, a proposed wildlife protection ordinance is nearing completion to link conservation areas across the county.
Last week, commissioners, sitting as the Land Planning Agency, reviewed the proposal as part of Pasco's comprehensive plan amendments. The actual ordinance is still subject to citizen review and public hearings before a final vote sometime early next year.
The task ahead for commissioners is to resist the temptation to water down the proposal in the name of (election year) property rights. Among the provisions is the ability to transfer density credits to protect desired corridors from encroaching development. That brings other concerns about increasing density via taller buildings or reduced setbacks that will need to be considered. Even so, such transfers are expected to become more common around the county as commissioners seek to guide growth away from sensitive and remote sites and toward so-called market corridors and urban service areas.
It also must be noted the wildlife ordinance, also known as critical linkage, does not preclude property owners from using their land as currently allowed, nor from future development within its existing zoning. The pleas for flexibility are understandable, but commissioners must not cave on this after 10 years of work that began as a settlement to citizens legal objections to both a rezoning of what is now the Oakstead development in Land O'Lakes and to the county's comprehensive plan that allowed it to occur.
The intent of the ordinance is to preserve open corridors, mostly among the existing well fields, Connerton and the Green Swamp and a separate link along the coast. Protecting some upland space will protect ground water quality, buffer wetlands and provide food, cover and breeding space for wildlife moving about the preserved space. Among the details to be completed is paying for and installing wildlife crossings — costing more than $500,000 each — under at least seven local and state roads.
Commissioners also must settle on an appropriate size for the corridors — likely the most controversial element. A consultant recommended a width equal to 10 percent of a corridor's length, but that would mean a mile-wide path for the 10-mile link between preserved land at Starkey and Cross Bar ranches. Instead, the plan calls for widths of 2,200 feet, but even that has brought objections from landowners and commissioners alike. In one high-profile case in 2008, commissioners agreed with a developer in Shady Hills to reduce the corridor to as little as 100 feet, a decision later overturned by the Department of Community Affairs.
That should be an imperative signal to present and future commission members. Investing a decade of time and money into designing and protecting a county wildlife corridor will be for naught if commissioners skimp on the size every time someone suggests thinner is better.