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Borrow pits near preserve raise fears

Few land uses can alter the ecosystem more dramatically than dirt borrow pits.

Their sheer size can disrupt drainage patterns, withering nearby wetlands. Heavy rains can swell a dirt pit's reservoir, flooding land preserved for wildlife.

So city officials were surprised recently to learn that a developer planned to dig two dirt borrow pits along the border of a fragile wildlife corridor in New Tampa.

The developer, the Krusen-Douglas Partnership, plans to dig five pits on what is known as K-Bar Ranch _ 2,300 acres of mostly cow pasture that is slated to be paved over for gated subdivisions.

Discovery of the pits stunned city officials. They met numerous times with representatives from Krusen-Douglas and two builders, M/I Homes and Mobley Homes, who want to erect subdivisions on both sides of a creek. The subject of dirt pits never came up during those meetings, said Greg Howe, the city's naturalist.

"We need to know about the pits," Howe said. "They create a situation where there won't be uplands for much of the year if they flood. And during dry season, they could dry up the creek."

The dirt pits further complicate a massive zoning and land use case that has stalled over concerns about preserving a wildlife corridor.

Tampa officials say native animals such as the gopher tortoise and sandhill crane need travel routes free of human contact amid the subdivisions that have mushroomed in New Tampa during the past two decades. If such land isn't preserved, they fear certain species will be isolated into extinction.

Unfortunately, the code that protects such corridors _ written when Dick Greco was mayor _ is regarded by both developers and city staff members as poorly defined and ambiguous.

The 600 homes that M/I Homes wants to build west of Morris Bridge Road have been held up for nearly a year by these uncertainties over exactly what's allowed within a wildlife corridor. Basset Branch Creek flows from Pasco County along the western edge of the proposed subdivision, which is to be called Easton Park.

M/I Homes has proposed digging up about 70 percent of the land in the corridor for drainage ponds. Codes don't prohibit ponds within a corridor, so representatives for M/I Homes say they should be allowed to dig them. That would give them more space to build homes _ and make more money for the project.

City officials argue that too many ponds would defeat the wildlife corridor's purpose _ to preserve dry land for critters. They're also a bit alarmed at plans to place exercise equipment and picnic tables along the corridor, which, again, is at odds with the intent of preserving an area so human activity doesn't interfere with wildlife. They've delayed approval of the plans since they were submitted in March.

On the other side of the creek, Mobley Homes plans to build about 1,000 homes. Four times it sought rezoning approval from the Tampa City Council last year, and four times it was denied approval because of officials' worries that the project would produce too much traffic and intrude into the wildlife corridor.

The attorney for Mobley Homes, Vin Marchetti, said his client has cooperated with the city by setting aside more land for preservation than the code requires. The project is scheduled for its fifth rezoning hearing on Jan. 20. Marchetti said his client can't afford any further delays.

"Our situation is extremely urgent," Marchetti said. "My client has spent a lot of money to get this approved, and the more it's delayed, the more this costs them. We were set to have buildable lots by the second quarter of 2005. Now we're looking at 2006."

It might not get any easier, however. Marchetti must now contend with city officials who say they only learned of the dirt pits after the Oct. 28 Tampa City Council meeting at which the project was delayed for the fourth time.

Howe said it wasn't a Mobley Homes representative who told him about the dirt pits, but someone from the city's stormwater department who faxed him a letter from Krusen-Douglas. The letter, dated Oct. 1, stated that the developer planned on digging the borrow pits.

Marchetti said he was surprised that Howe didn't know about the borrow pits earlier. He said consultants hired by Krusen-Douglas assured him that they told city officials about the borrow pit permits during meetings on the wildlife corridor.

"We absolutely raised that issue," Marchetti said. He said he did not know specifically when they mentioned the pits, or who mentioned them to city staff members.

He said it should have been common knowledge among city officials that the borrow pits were planned _ they were mentioned in the 2002 agreement that annexed those 2,300 acres into the city. On Page 12 of the 18-page agreement, it states that the city agreed to honor the "land excavation special use permits" approved by the county.

But there's no mention of where on the property those pits would be dug, Howe said. During his many discussions with representatives for the developer, it would have been helpful if someone had mentioned that two of the pits would be dug next to the corridor, he said.

Howe says the only way he could have known their whereabouts was if he had pulled 8-year-old documents filed with the county. But he didn't know they existed until he was faxed the Krusen-Douglas letter.

Those documents explain that two of the pits, sizes 16 and 33 acres, would be next to the corridor. Three other pits, sizes of 18, 36 and 67 acres, would be elsewhere.

The unearthed documents only reinforce the city's premise that the land along Basset Branch Creek is worthy of protection. That view was supported in a 2002 letter from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which actually recommended a wider corridor.

But ever since the K-Bar land was annexed into the city, the developer has disagreed with that conclusion.

"It is Krusen-Douglas' position that insufficient analysis has been undertaken to determine if Basset Branch Creek satisfies the criteria for a wildlife corridor," the annexation agreement states. That position was restated in an Aug. 31 letter by Scott Steady, an attorney for M/I Homes.

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

But when Hillsborough County granted Krusen-Douglas the borrow pit permits, it stated that the developer must preserve a 400-foot wide corridor deemed "significant wildlife habitat" _ the same designation the company now disputes.

There's not much the city can do to deny the borrow pits. The county gave Krusen-Douglas 20 years to dig them, and the city agreed to honor that time frame when the land was annexed into the city.

Now that city officials know about the pits, Howe said that could help the city barter for better terms in the wildlife corridor.

For instance, M/I Homes has said it needed to dig all those ponds in the corridor because it desperately needed fill dirt to elevate home lots. If Mobley Homes digs those borrow pits, then it couldn't possibly argue that it needs the same number of ponds on its side of the corridor, Howe said.

"If they're digging all these pits, they won't need the ponds," he said. "This changes our outlook on the corridor."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 269-5312 or mvansicklersptimes.com

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