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Land plan still must face Lutz

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

The gopher tortoises could still be threatened. So could the short-tailed snakes. And even though developers have scaled back plans for Tampa to annex the Cypress Creek wetlands in northern Hillsborough, home to several protected creatures, the annexation could provoke the same ire as it did earlier this year.

The main reason: Lutz. The Lutz activists who cobbled together a coalition of politicians and environmentalists against the city of Tampa may remobilize, despite the fact the latest proposal doesn't cross Lutz's self-styled border, Interstate 275.

"I'm going to do everything I can to block this," said Denise Layne, president of the Lutz Civic Association. "The city of Tampa is grabbing everything. They'll destroy the wetlands."

The proposed annexation is a watered down version of a plan that failed to materialize this spring. Lennar Homes, which owns hundreds of acres in northern Hillsborough, had asked Tampa to extend city limits to include a 517-acre swath of wetlands in an area known as the Cypress Creek Preserve. Lennar and the city discussed building a $30-million highway across the preserve to connect Tampa Palms and I-275. Lennar even offered to give the city land for the highway.

But the deal soured when Lutz residents learned the annexation would reach into their neighborhoods west of I-275, to Livingston Road, and might bring commercial projects and apartment buildings. They enlisted the support of the local Sierra Club and a county commissioner.

In July, the coalition persuaded city officials to back out of the deal.

This Thursday, the City Council will address a revised plan, which focuses on 376 acres _ all on the east side of the interstate. Lennar has no scheme to build houses on the land or a six-lane highway, said the company's lawyer.

"Our plan is to use the land for more wetlands to mitigate any new developments in Tampa Palms," said Tim Johnson, Lennar's attorney. "We think it's easier to do this under the city's jurisdiction."

Under development regulations, if Lennar builds more houses in Tampa Palms, which is in the city, it must develop new wetlands in Tampa to offset any ecological impact. That's why Lennar wants the wetlands inside city limits.

Tampa would gain an expanded tax base.

"If cities don't grow, they die," said Tampa City Council member Bob Buckhorn. "In the long term, it makes sense for us to annex land up there."

Problem is, that land is home to protected species like gopher tortoises, short-tailed snakes and several types of birds. Environmentalists argue that even if a road doesn't destroy the ecosystem _ which they say would happen _ the city won't protect the wildlife as well as the county.

"The city is desperate to increase its tax base," said Denise Lasher, a member of the Lutz Civic Association. "As a result, the city isn't as stringent in implementing environmental laws."

Lutz residents like Lasher and Layne threaten to stir up trouble over the proposed annexation. Yet this time politicians don't see a storm brewing on the horizon.

"I challenged the annexation before because people in Lutz didn't want mass development," said Jim Norman, a commissioner of Hillsborough County. "But because this land is all east of the interstate, I don't see it raising that many problems."