The state Department of Community Affairs recognizes the merit of Pasco County's comprehensive land-use plan and the value of providing environmental protections amid fast-growing suburbs. If only county commissioners did.
Last week, the state rebuked Pasco County for deviating from its stated intentions to set aside 2,200-foot-wide paths as wildlife corridors between larger tracts of preserved land. The corridors are part of the land plan approved previously by Pasco and the Department of Community Affairs, but the commission has yet to enact a local ordinance to specify how to enforce the wildlife protections. In other words, the comprehensive plan, on this issue, has no teeth.
The tardiness — the ordinance had been scheduled to be adopted by the end of last year — allowed a property owner in Shady Hills to argue for a less restrictive corridor. In September, without hearing from their own consultant, commissioners swallowed the argument and litigation bluster from Bell Fruit Co. and its attorney that the wider wildlife path amounted to an illegal taking of land. Commissioners acquiesced to a 1,600-foot-wide corridor, all but 100 feet of which was wetlands.
The unanimous vote came even though County Administrator John Gallagher suggested a delay and County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said it set a precedent for future landowners to also seek to water down the county's environmental rules.
Commissioners ignored their professional staff and, later, their consultant, who appeared at an October workshop to substantiate the specified corridor width. It is a distressing pattern of paying short-shrift to the environment.
The vote came six years after commission members, three of whom remain in office, accepted the consultant's findings of 2,200 feet as the corridor standard. More to the point, Commissioners Ann Hildebrand and Pat Mulieri remain on the board nine years after a lawsuit over the rezoning of what is now the Oakstead subdivision in Land O'Lakes — the settlement for which called for establishing better wildlife protections. Commissioners were remiss then and remain so today.
The DCA acted appropriately after the Gulf Coast Conservancy objected to the Bell Fruit Co. vote. The county has two options. It can adopt the 2,200-foot-wide corridor, or commission yet another study to justify the narrower path since DCA correctly noted the September vote came without adequate scientific evidence to validate the decision.
Don't bother spending more money to rationalize a hasty and erroneous decision. Commissioners need to affirm their stated commitment to Pasco County's environment and would be wise to expedite consideration of the ordinances intended to complement the expensive rewrite of the land plan.