Pausing and looking at the local landscape on Earth Day 2008, there is plenty in which to take stock.
Pasco County government buys and protects environmentally sensitive land; is seeking what would likely be tens of millions of dollars from the state to preserve the 12,000-acre Cross Bar Ranch north of Land O'Lakes; mandates tree protections; regulates lawn watering and champions conservation; encourages residents to adopt and clean ponds and highways; is investigating green building standards; cares for landscaping in road medians and talks of the potential for an ethanol plant in Shady Hills.
This place is moving in the right direction.
• State Road 56 traverses what appears to be two new lakes surrounded by a barren landscape and construction equipment. No, not wetlands restoration. Actually, the former pasture land and current eyesore is the stalled construction site of Cypress Creek Town Center, a mega shopping center touted as the region's largest mall that suspended construction after an environmental permit dispute.
• The backers of a proposed landfill in east Pasco and the current operators of the waste incinerator plant in Shady Hills are locked in a public relations battle over the costs, benefits and environmental risks of trash disposal methods. It could leave lay persons scratching their heads fearing water and air quality are at risk no matter what.
• A member of the development team of the proposed 2,300-acre Sunwest Harbourtowne project in northwest Pasco blasted a county biologist for suggesting a comprehensive examination of the county's coastal resources, including sea grass, as part of the project's permitting process.
This place is moving in the wrong direction.
That is to say the Earth Day landscape indicates a mixed bag for Pasco's environment with the private sector and government regulators often on different pages. They're not even in the same book, in some instances.
The environmental scorecard is below average for Pasco County for a different reason. The routine closing of Hudson Beach and other public swimming spots because of bacteria contamination notwithstanding, the most troubling aspect of Pasco's green record is the county's inability to advance a better curbside recycling program.
In January, commissioners offered near unanimous enthusiasm to boost collection of reusable materials and to cut the flow of waste from county residents that has pushed the incinerator beyond capacity. The county now contracts to truck up to 60,000 tons of trash to Osceola County annually.
Commission support for a so-called single-stream recycling system — in which residents could toss glass, plastic, aluminum, metal, paper, cardboard and newspapers in one or two bins — wilted in a matter of weeks. Nine haulers operating in Pasco objected to the idea of dividing the county into four franchise areas as a precursor to a renewed emphasis on recycling.
The commission responded by punting the matter back to its staff, which is absent one of the obvious players. The recycling coordinator position is vacant.
The county now appears married to the 17-year-old blue bag program the public does not use effectively. A commission majority has demonstrated no political will to mandate residential recycling or to ask the public to absorb the price for such a program.
Escalating gasoline costs, a rising foreclosure rate, dropping property values, state-mandated spending caps and a stagnate economy are all reasons to be cautious. But let's face it, the county was slow to respond even in good economic times. The incinerator hit capacity during the building boom that brought tens of thousands of new residents and their accompanying new property tax payments to county coffers.
The recycling rate did not grow accordingly. Curbside recycling is available to nearly 70 percent of Pasco households, yet participation hovers near 15 percent. Put another way, blue bags sit at the curb in front of just two of every 10 homes on recycling day.
So, on Earth Day 2008, green is a financial, not an environmental, consideration.