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For new development, tortoises must move

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The school district and county government soon will relocate dozens of gopher tortoises that stand in the way of new projects.

The county also has elected to pay state mitigation fees to pave over some of the tortoises' homes, a move that likely will trap and kill the tortoises unless the soil is lightly packed and the tortoises can dig their way out.

The county's decision to pave over the gopher tortoise holes in the path of its widening of County Road 491 was based primarily on timing. The project is already months behind schedule, mostly because of the difficulty the county encountered securing right-of-way for the road project.

"The fact that we did that doesn't mean it was the right thing to do," said Gary Maidhof, the county's director of development services. "It's legal, but it's not right."

CR 491 is already under construction, and the damage to gopher tortoises already done. But the county plans to shift policies for its expansion of County Road 486, and is also drafting a policy for dealing with gopher tortoise habitat in the future.

That policy, which will likely be considered by the County Commission next month, will state that county government should first consider relocating gopher tortoises before falling back on paying state fees to destroy their habitat.

The school district, faced with gopher tortoises that live on a sandy site on the Lecanto school complex where a new Renaissance Center will soon be built, has decided against bulldozing over the animals. Superintendent David Hickey met with his top construction advisers on Thursday to talk about the Renaissance Center project, which is slated for a 28-acre portion of the complex near the existing bus garage.

Hickey said he immediately decided that, as an educational institution, the school district must relocate the protected animals. Hickey's choice sends his construction officials onto their next phase of work.

They will now study the best relocation option, which could involve moving the tortoises to another undeveloped part of the Lecanto site or to another school-district-owned site such as Rock Crusher Elementary School. Another option would be to pay to have someone move the animals to a private tortoise preserve, according to James Hughes, executive director of support services for the district.

"It's too early to tell right now" which will be the best option, he said. "We do know it will be less expensive to relocate them to our own campus rather than another property."

The school district already has land set aside at Rock Crusher Elementary for tortoises. In 1988, school officials learned that their newly purchased school site on Rock Crusher Road was riddled with gopher tortoise holes. More than 100 lived on the site.

Earlier that year the state ended hunting season in an effort to protect the animals, which were declining in numbers primarily because their taste in homesites _ high, sandy soils _ was also the property preferred by Florida developers.

The district ultimately hired a firm to dig out and relocate the tortoises, which were located on the site where the school would be built. They were moved to the western end of the 104-acre site where construction was not planned.

In 1993 the School Board made a different decision as the district prepared to build Citrus Springs Middle School.

Instead of relocating the animals found living on that site, the board paid $35,000 to the state to be able to build on the site without moving the animals. At the time, school officials determined that the site was only large enough to house the school and state officials were not anxious to grant permits to move the animals to another site because they feared the spread of diseases among different gopher tortoise populations.

The payment was designed to offset the cost of damaging the environment and was put into a fund to buy larger tracts of gopher tortoise preserve throughout the state.

That's where about $100,000 in county money, intended to offset the damage to the gopher tortoise population, will go. The county will go forward with plans to pay state mitigation fees for the tortoises located in the path of the County Road 486 project because county officials are uncertain they can successfully relocate those tortoises, Maidhof said.

The gopher tortoises are in the path of the widening of County Road 491. The county has elected to pay a mitigation fee to the state. "The fact that we did that doesn't mean it was the right thing to do," said Gary Maidhof, the county director of development services. "It's legal, but it's not right."