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Big cats get to expand den

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The 42-acre animal sanctuary known as Big Cat Rescue will be allowed to quadruple the amount of building space on its property despite complaints from neighbors who say the expansion will put too much traffic on their ru+ral road.

In a 5-1 vote, Hillsborough County commissioners approved a rezoning request that, over time, will allow the sanctuary to add a museum, gift shop, snack bar, office, clinic, educational classrooms and additional residences for caretakers.

Carole Lewis, the founder and chief executive officer of Big Cat Rescue, formerly called Wildlife on Easy Street, said the plan could take years to complete. But she wanted to make sure the sanctuary will be able to grow in the future.

"It's a long-term plan," said Tampa attorney Ted Taub, who represented the sanctuary during a Hillsborough County land use meeting Tuesday. "This is a vision."

County Commissioner Pat Frank voted against the proposal, and Commissioner Ronda Storms wasn't present for the vote.

The cat sanctuary is at the end of a private road called Easy Street, located off Citrus Park Drive across from Westfield Shoppingtown Citrus Park. It houses lions, tigers and other exotic cats that have been rescued from zoos, circuses and private owners.

Lewis said she wanted the expansion to better care for the roughly 170 exotic cats in residence there.

However, Jean Carson, who owns Easy Street and has lived there since 1964, opposed the expansion, contending that traffic on the one-lane dirt road already has damaged the root systems of trees lining the road. The proposed improvements, she said, would put at least 46,000 vehicles a year on the country lane.

Easy Street has been a bone of contention since the start of the rezoning process.

As a condition of the rezoning approval, county commissioners required that Big Cat Rescue bring the dirt road up to county standards, or find an alternative access route. That requirement, however, would only be triggered when Big Cat Rescue expands its restaurant, snack shop or gift shop.

County commissioners also required that Tampa Bay Water review any plans for waste disposal if the sanctuary adds a lab to its proposed medical clinic. And commissioners prohibited a pole sign advertising Big Cat Rescue.

"Hard feelings don't help the overall community," said Commissioner Jim Norman, who suggested some fence-mending between Carson and Big Cat Rescue. "I know you're all good people."

_ Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripleysptimes.com.