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County wants funds to buy nature, not build it

When it comes to building roads, Pasco County officials are confident they can do a good job. But when the state tells them to create a marsh or a swamp, they doubt that they can improve on nature.

With that in mind, Pasco officials want to try approaching their duties as protectors of the environment from a new angle.

Florida now requires the county to create artificial wetlands to replace state-protected areas disturbed by the construction of a road or other public works project. Consequently, the cost of road projects often includes some money for environmental mitigation.

The way county officials see it, such attempts pose several problems. First, they can be expensive. Second, there's no guarantee that they will work. Recent studies have suggested that human attempts to imitate nature have failed.

As an alternative, county officials want to take the money they now plan to spend on environmental mitigation and use it to buy natural wetlands instead. They have suggested the idea in a letter to Dale Twachtmann, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER).

Decades ago, wetlands such as saltwater marshes and freshwater cypress heads were considered useless and often were destroyed. More recently, environmentalists have shown that the areas are teeming with wildlife and help replenish underground water supplies.

In his letter, County Attorney Ben Harrill said the County Commission's staff thinks that buying wetlands from private owners and preserving them in their original state would offer "a much greater environmental benefit" than trying to replace wetlands that have been disturbed.

As proposed, the county would set aside money budgeted for mitigation efforts and use the funds to buy environmentally sensitive land along Pasco's coastline. Harrill wrote that pooling funds to buy coastal areas appears to offer more value than creating "small, isolated wetlands in connection with each separate construction project."

Pasco officials have not added up the amount of money budgeted for creating artificial wetlands, but county purchasing records show that the costs can be significant. Mitigation expenses account for nearly $165,000 of the $5.3-million cost of building the Mitchell bypass.

Moreover, county officials note that spending money to create wetlands may not work as intended.

Two recent studies _ one by the DER and the other by the environmental group ManaSota-88 _ conclude that state officials have failed to force developers to replace the wetlands that they destroy.

The replacement wetlands often are too choked with cattails and other so-called "nuisance" plants to function properly, according to the studies. Moreover, the DER often does not have the staff or resources to enforce its rules.

Harrill said the county wants to focus on preserving coastal areas because large areas of central and eastern Pasco already are publicly owned. An estimated 30 percent of Pasco County consists of well fields and protected areas along rivers.

"Unfortunately," Harrill wrote, "the preservation of coastal lands through public acquisition has not kept pace with the government's wetland acquisition program, due largely to the lack of adequate funding."

And, Harrill said, buying coastal property would benefit the area where many of the county's road projects will take place.

"Since a large part of the county's population is located in the western third of the county, a number of the proposed capital projects will actually be constructed in or near the coastal zone," Harrill noted.

For example, nearly 3,500 coastal acres are for sale north of Gulf View Square Mall and west of U.S. 19. Funds now earmarked for mitigation could be used to help the state buy for parkland that property, known as the Wetstone and Berkovitz tracts.

Twachtmann could not be reached for comment Wednesday. In the past, though, various state agencies have encouraged local officials to consider similar ideas.

Even so, an official with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, said Wednesday that the kind of trade-off proposed by the county would have to be considered one case at a time.

John Post, an environmental scientist supervisor in Swiftmud's Brooksville office, said officials would want to be sure that they were trading apples for apples.

"You take out a cypress head, you give us back a cypress head. You take out a herbaceous marsh, you give us back a herbaceous marsh," Post said. "We're looking at replacing function for function."

Post also responded to criticisms of mitigation efforts by saying that careful follow-up can help ensure that artificial wetlands function properly. Most mitigation projects still are in their early stages, but he said Swiftmud's results so far have been encouraging.

"I think we stand a very good chance of having successful mitigation projects," Post said. "They're looking good now."