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Council could evict sheriff for harassing pair of cranes

It's the revenge of the birds.

The owners of land where Pasco County Sheriff Lee Cannon is building the Safety Town project for children have threatened to evict him if he does not stop harassing a pair of sandhill cranes on the property.

That's not all. The owners also want Cannon to stop using their land and the project as tools to promote his political career.

Janice Jones, president of Concourse Council Inc., sent a sharp letter Thursday to Pasco County commissioners in which she accused Cannon of being "abusive and threatening or very childish" in recent talks about the birds.

But Mike Randall, the sheriff's legal counsel, said the sheriff just wants to end the bickering.

"We don't want to get into a shouting contest," Randall said.

Cannon leases 6 acres rent-free from the Concourse Council, which owns 216 acres near Hays Road and State Road 52. He is using the land to build Safety Town, a miniature town to teach children lessons like road and bike safety.

Recently, though, Cannon has become embroiled in a dispute with the council over two overly friendly sandhill cranes. The tall, stately birds seem to have little fear of humans and often come quite close to workers at the site.

Cannon thinks the birds pose a danger to the hundreds of school children who will be trooping through the area this fall. He has tried without success to scare the birds by shooting firecracker-like noisemakers in the air.

But that attempt angered the council's board members, one of whom accused Cannon of threatening to shoot the birds during a May meeting.

The birds are still hanging around the town, but now, the council has decided to exercise its landlord rights, Jones said.

"We want him to observe the conditions of the lease or else we'll have to seek legal counsel," Jones said.

Jones said the sheriff has broken the 25-year lease with the council in numerous ways. The pyrotechnic devices that were set off, modifications to a building on the site and an open dumpster are all violations, she said.

More specifically, Jones said the council is upset that the sheriff seems to be using the site for his own political ends. Council members have nothing against Safety Town, they said. But they do not want it to become politicized.

Instead, the council wants Safety Town to be part of the larger concept for the Concourse, which eventually will have a museum, American Indian village and model of Fort Dade on-site.

"Safety Town is absolutely great, but he's trying to put his name all over everything," she said.

Both sides say they want to amicably resolve the dispute, but neither seems to be making much effort to do so.

Jones said there was no political agenda in sending letters to the commissioners, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Times instead of communicating directly with the sheriff.

"There's no hidden meaning. There's no other shoe to drop. We just want to do this and do it right the first time," Jones said.

And Randall said there is no meeting set up between the council and the sheriff to reach an understanding.

"I don't think there necessarily has to be a concrete plan," he said. "We need to deal with the problem we have and quit worrying about who gets credits for things."