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Developer challenges land buffer policy

(ran East edition)

From the air, Basset Branch Creek hardly inspires awe.

It meanders _ and nearly disappears at some points _ across a landscape scrubbed bare by years of cattle grazing.

And yet, this same body of water is the flash point in a dispute between Tampa officials and developers that could have far-reaching consequences for a dwindling wildlife population crowded out by home construction in New Tampa and Pasco County.

Tampa officials have long maintained the importance of preserving dry land along creeks. As subdivisions devour untamed land, city officials say native animals need travel routes free of human contact. If such land isn't preserved, they say, animals will isolate themselves into extinction.

M/I Homes wants to build 600 homes on 436 acres of cow pasture between Heritage Isles and Morris Bridge Road. Basset Branch Creek trickles through the property from Pasco County and into the Hillsborough River, which supplies Tampa's drinking water.

But there aren't enough critters along Basset Branch Creek to justify the city's preservation demands, said an attorney representing M/I Homes in a letter to City Attorney David Smith.

"The creek itself has been highly degraded because of the grazing," wrote Scott Steady in a letter to Smith. "It is undisputed that the land in and around the creek . . . is not a significant wildlife habitat."

M/I Homes wants to dig drainage ponds in the 25 feet the city requires for a wildlife corridor. By digging there, M/I homes would have more land for homes _ and, therefore, more land that can make the project money. But city officials say placing the ponds in the corridor defeats the purpose of preserving the land. Since March, they've refused to approve the construction plans.

In his Aug. 31 letter, Steady said the city's delay is "creating significant problems" for the project, called Easton Park. By imposing wildlife zones along the creek, the city excluded "virtually all use of that property," he wrote, suggesting that the city has no authority to restrict private property for such a purpose.

Steady bases much of his argument on the findings of a survey conducted by Biological Research Associates, a firm developers often use to bolster their cases that residential subdivisions do little harm to the environment.

In 2003, the firm installed an undisclosed number of infrared motion cameras that recorded the movement of animals somewhere along the creek between late May and July. The cameras detected a slim number of animals: two great egrets, a great blue heron, a raccoon and cattle.

Those results prove the creek is "either insignificant or inconsequential" as a travel route for wildlife, Steady wrote.

But it's misleading to evaluate wildlife population on such a short period of time, said Gina Miller, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough River Greenways Task Force.

"If you want to do an adequate environmental sample, you have to do it for more than two months," Miller said.

It's incorrect to conclude the creek has little value as a travel route based on how animals use it now, said Julie Sternfels, the city's former naturalist.

"Maybe they don't use the creek now because they're not forced to," Sternfels said. "But they will be forced to use it once the land is developed and the cow pasture is paved over. They're going to need that land as a contiguous travel route that links them to natural areas."

Steady disputes there aren't enough critical preservation areas north of the M/I Homes property that the animals will use.

"You would assume that there is some large expanse of significant wildlife habitat to the north in Pasco County that will be preserved in the future," Steady said. "Biological Research Associates has only identified a total of 63 acres that will be preserved by Pasco County. The rest is planned for large residential developments."

But Steady is mischaracterizing how much land Pasco County has preserved for wildlife, said Bob Tietz, that county's biologist.

There is a 64-acre tract of land in Wesley Chapel along Basset Branch that is set aside for gopher tortoises. In addition, there are about 7,000 acres of land the county is reserving for wildlife corridors.

"He's using that number out of context," Tietz said. "Pasco County has an ambitious program for protecting lands and connecting natural areas."

It only enhances the land Pasco County is trying to preserve if the adjacent lands zoned by other governments follow suit _ giving animals a larger migration area, he said.

"I really hope the city sticks to its guns," Tietz said.

Smith said officials are reviewing the zoning agreement with M/I Homes to determine how the city will respond to Steady's letter.

"The thing that bothers me is that (M/I Homes) agreed to the rezoning and these 25 feet," said Miller of the task force. When Tampa City Council approved the project last year, the task force went along with the minimum 25 feet corridor, even though the city initially recommended a width of at least 100 feet. Miller said it would set a "terrible precedent" if the city didn't enforce at least the minimum buffer.

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