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Mayor seeks stricter environmental rules

Mayor Dick Greco has been enjoying kudos lately for breathing life into near-dead business deals like a convention center hotel and an old-fashioned trolley.

But by living up to his reputation as a visionary developer, the mayor has been criticized by some as neglecting Mother Nature.

Today, the mayor says, that perception will change. Ron Rotella, the mayor's aide on land use regulations, will propose to the Tampa City Council that the city tighten its environmental rules, especially those that cover undeveloped pastures and animal habitats.

"There are a lot of people who assume that because I like to build things that I'm soft on the environment," Greco said. "But I don't want developers thinking that they'll get a break from the city on the environment. Our rules are going to be as strict as anyone's."

Specifically, the mayor is supporting a new ordinance that protects upland habitats in Tampa as stringently as those in unincorporated Hillsborough County. Under county rules, any development that could affect 75 acres or more of uplands _ untouched dry or wooded areas _ must be reviewed.

Sometimes the county requires developers to preserve as much as 25 percent of the land and leave corridors for animals to travel to other pristine areas. The few areas the city might have to protect include Port Tampa, New Tampa and land along the Hillsborough River.

The mayor is right to perceive that many think that county officials have done a far better job than he has in protecting animals and plants.

"For Greco, it's a mad rush to literally pave over paradise," said Monte Belote, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, which scrutinizes land-use policy.

The difference between the city's and the county's environmental rules is only widening, Belote said. While the mayor was recently criticized for trying to relax rules about cutting down trees, the county has been praised for creating more regulation.

The county _ not the city _ maps all ecologically sensitive areas so officials know where protected animals live before developers arrive. The county also has stricter measures than Tampa to prevent water contamination, and it requires more open space within developments.

Some of these differences are directly related to population density, and an urban area such as Tampa has needs and challenges different from suburban or rural areas.

But the mayor says he hopes to send a signal to developers and others that wherever conditions are the same, the city will be as protective of nature as the county.

City Council member Scott Paine thinks it is a good plan, though he believes not all the criticism leveled at the city is justified.

"Greco came in with a pro-development agenda," he said. "That's fine; but it leaves him vulnerable to neighborhoods and environmentalists."

As the one who directs the city's environmental policies, Rotella is often the target. The anger toward him peaked this summer when the city backed a proposal to build a road through the Cypress Creek basin, an untouched swamp near New Tampa that environmentalists call a preserve. Part of that area soon will be annexed into the city, and watchdogs such as Belote worry that Rotella will give the green light to development.

Rotella is "the Darth Vader of the environment," Belote said. "Rotella has never met a development he didn't like. Why should we believe he will protect the preserve?"

Rotella, who once was chairman of a task force on preventing urban sprawl, says critics like Belote don't understand how vigilantly he's guarded the environment.

"I've always felt strongly about protecting Tampa's recreational and natural areas," he said. "But I realize that there is a perception out there that we don't place a high priority on protecting the environment. This administration is sensitive to that perception, and now it's time to rectify it."