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Developers write check for right to destroy tortoise habitat

As a developer prepares to build a subdivision on 475 acres west of Race Track Road, some neighbors and environmentalists are worried about the fate of gopher tortoises that already live there.

The developer, Forest City Land Group, plans to build Westwood Lakes, a 657-home subdivision on land north and east of the Tri-County Business Park. About 90 acres of the site are dotted with burrows indicating the presence of gopher tortoises.

So before the first shovel of dirt turn can be turned, Forest City must pay $128,344 to a Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission's trust fund for the right to destroy the burrows, and likely, the tortoises that live there.

The trust fund pays for the upkeep of a tortoise mitigation area along Bullfrog Creek in eastern Hillsborough County, where the state-designated "species of special concern" can thrive without threat to its habitat.

"I'm sure it is perfectly legal and a lot of people say it's scientifically defensible," said Allison Edwards, conservation chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Tampa Bay group. "I'm not sure as far as the humanity of it."

Hillsborough County has regulations protecting wildlife. In the case of gopher tortoises, the developer would have to set aside an area on the site for the animals.

But those rules do not apply to the Westwood Lakes property because it is vested _ a special dispensation allowed to property owners who begin preparing property for development before an ordinance goes into effect.

The result is that Westwood Lakes has a choice.

It can "preserve habitat on site or get a take permit to pay into a statewide fund," said Steve J. Godley, a biological consultant for Forest City Land Group.

"In this case it made sense from a site planning perspective" to take the burrows, Godley said.

Officials with the Cleveland-based developer did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

The taking of gopher tortoises and their burrows is a euphemism for destruction of the burrows, an action most developers favor because it is quicker and cheaper than moving the animals to a new site.

According to Jim Beever, a biologist with Florida's Fish and Game Commission, the agency has issued 15 permits for the taking of gopher tortoises in Hillsborough this year, more than any surrounding county.

In 1996, 11 land owners paid for the right to destroy the tortoises, even though the statewide population has dwindled by about a third in recent years, to about 1.2-million.

"Off-site (tortoise relocation) has not been particularly successful," Beever said. "Any place that would support them already had gopher tortoises on it, and in some cases they are in conflict with each other."

The stress of relocation also sometimes kills the animals, and in some cases the relocation allows tortoises to transmit upper respiratory infections to otherwise healthy tortoises.

Westwood Lakes is not alone.

"It's very prevalent,"Edwards said. "Every time they build a highway this will happen."

The Florida Department of Transportation paid to kill tortoises when expanding U.S. 41 in Lutz and extending Linebaugh Avenue in Westchase.

Developers of the newly approved Mound Lake subdivision in Odessa are pondering what to do with the gopher tortoises there.

"We're making our game plan for the total development," said Joyce Schaffer, vice president of Lake Development. "Moving the gopher tortoises or paying into the fund is one of the questions on our list."

Meanwhile, residents such as Steve Morris, president of the Keystone Civic Association, berate government officials who continue to allow intensive development on environmentally sensitive land.

"All the politicians seem to get on board on the environment," Morris said. "Yet, a developer can write a check and it's legally done. How neat and tidy."

_ If you have a story about Odessa, call Jackie Ripley at 226-3468.