It is the environmental equivalent of the hot stove league — a proposed trade that has people dissecting what's best for cubs and scrub-jays. Except this swap isn't about baseball, it's about parcels of land just south of the Pasco-Hernando border and water regulators shouldn't execute this agreement.
On Tuesday, the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District will consider a proposal to trade 90 acres west of U.S. 19 and south of Aripeka Road to SunWest Acquisition Corp., for 396 acres further south and on the west side of Old Dixie Highway.
How much consideration is unknown. The governing board's published agenda originally listed the proposed transaction as part of its consent agenda, one of 38 items — along with such pressing matters as approving minutes from earlier meetings — to be considered in a single vote. The district later moved it to a discussion item. That is appropriate. This issue warrants a full public debate and the board shouldn't be guided by convenience.
Under the proposal, the 90 acres now owned by the district would become part of the 2,640-acre SunWest Harbourtowne residential, commercial, golfing and marina development that still must pass muster with county and state planning authorities. The 396 acres would abut existing property owned by the water district on the south and a planned county park on the north.
The water district offers legitimate explanations for this idea. Among them:
• It acquired the 90 acres in 2001 believing the land to the south would become a Pasco County park under terms of a 1970s agreement in which the former owners were to turn the land over to the county after its mining operations ceased. Instead, the owners sold the operating rights to SunWest in 1999. The county sued in 2004 and settled with SunWest for $3 million and 20 acres to be used for part of Pasco's waterfront park. In exchange, the county gave up its interest in 915 acres that became part of the proposed Harbourtowne development.
Because the adjoining land is no longer a county park, but a planned mixed-use golf course community, the water district said it feared its 90 acres would be isolated from other preserved property and be costly to manage.
• The 396 acres, adjoining existing water district land, provides a larger and more continuous tract of coastal property and contains habitat for endangered species including the Florida scrub-jay.
• As part of the deal, SunWest also is to donate to the district 849 acres of mostly wetlands along the coast.
• The trade trims the potential for future high density development because 396 acres is not included in the proposed Harbourtowne development and is zoned for up to four homes per acre.
• Two appraisals showed the SunWest 396 acres as more valuable than the district's 90 acres.
SunWest benefits from adding land that will become part of its golf course and gaining additional frontage along Aripeka Road.
On its surface, it is a reasonable land swap that could prove beneficial to all involved. Until you consider the endangered Florida black bear — and that is why we can't endorse this transaction. Wildlife concerns must not be superseded by land management ease or private development interests.
The water district's 90 acres is toward the southern end of the Greater Chassahowitzka Ecosystem stretching from Pasco to Citrus counties and sits directly across Aripeka Road from 210 acres of black bear habitat Pasco County acquired in 2007 through its Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program. The district suggests Aripeka Road itself could discourage bears from traveling to the 90 acres, but that is implausible in light of the five-year study ending in 2002 that showed bears use the property. More to the point, building a wildlife crossing beneath Aripeka Road is better encouragement to black bear protection than swapping away part of the animals' habitat.
The water district has spent considerable resources to preserve more than 11,000 acres in Aripeka and Weeki Wachee that provide valuable wildlife protections. Encroaching roads and homes fragment bear habitat and keep the animals from larger areas needed for food and mating.
It is a commendable record. The water district shouldn't stain it by being a party to turning protected bear habitat into a golf course fairway.