1. Archive

Don't let second chance at land along river slip by

New Port Richey City Council member Dell deChant calls it "materially different." Mayor Peter Altman says "it's a significantly different situation." Maybe so, but get ready for the howls. The City Council voted 3-1 Wednesday night to pursue, once again, a purchase of 80 acres along the Pithlachascotee River, and that is certain to bring out many of the same forces that gathered in April to scuttle a proposed contract on the land.

This time, we hope, the people who see the value in protecting the winding, dark river and its abundant wildlife will persevere.

The city easily could have bought the 80-acre tract last year and satisfied major portions of its 20-year comprehensive growth plan, including the promise to protect and preserve the river. But instead of leading, the council majority decided to let the voters decide the issue for them. In April, after a long campaign marred by exaggerations of the city's financial standing, the river purchase proponents lost by 175 votes.

So now the council wants to go back at the property? Are they ignoring the voters' wishes? What makes this effort "materially different?"

Plenty. The straw ballot asked whether voters wanted to approve the negotiated contract that set the price at $700,000. Two appraisals set the value at $685,000 and $623,000. The council's vote Wednesday night was to direct the city manager to get back in contact with the land owner and determine whether he would be willing to take it off the market while the city applies for matching funds from the state for a purchase.

Council members were encouraged especially by a letter sent to them this week from state Rep. John Long, D-Land O'Lakes, one of the majority whips in the House. He encouraged the council to apply for a grant under the new Preservation 2000 state environmental program.

It will not be clear until April how the new preservation program will work, but an anticipated $17-million will be available for 50 percent matching grants. The city expects to ask for $350,000 _ if the river property still is available.

There are other grant programs, including two implemented through the Department of Natural Resources, that require a pre-application by Nov. 15. The council will examine all possibilities, but Preservation 2000 is the most attractive. The city's chances for the grant money would be enhanced by the fact that the appraisals already have been completed. Even more important, however, are the preliminary findings of an extensive study of the sources of pollution of the river, which is the city's most valuable natural resource. The study, prepared for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, recommended the purchase of "significant areas of land" to collect and filter the storm water that is a major source of the river's pollution.

At its special meeting Wednesday, the council sought the public's suggestions on how it might comply with the promises set forth in the state-mandated comprehensive plan. The only large piece of riverine property mentioned was the 80 acres. Some speakers suggested there may be other land upriver, but this tract is the only one close enough to the city to be annexed legally. And if the city is going to meet its comprehensive plan requirements, it is going to have to find land outside its boundaries.

The only council member voting against pursuing the 80 acres, Debbie Prewitt, conceded that she knew of no other land available to meet the city's needs. Obviously remembering the bitter April election, she was reluctant to seize any opportunity to preserve this pristine portion of the river, electing at one point to suggest getting grant money to possibly convert the closed Indiana Avenue landfill into a park.

Prewitt ought to focus her attention on the river and the promises made to clean it up and preserve it for future generations. The council squandered one opportunity to secure that property. If it does get a second opportunity, it should not let it slip away.