State officials have rejected Pasco County commissioners' controversial decision to let a developer shrink a wildlife corridor against the recommendations of its own consultant.
In a letter to commission Chairman Ted Schrader, the Florida Department of Community Affairs wrote that allowing the developers to set aside only wetlands and a 100-foot buffer was inconsistent with the county's comprehensive plan, which relied on a consultant's study recommending a 2,200-foot-wide corridor.
Commissioners had balked in September at the consultant's recommendations, which had yet to be discussed at a workshop, saying the wide corridor seemed too large and unduly burdened property owners. They unanimously approved the smaller corridor that the Bell Fruit Co. requested for its 530-acre tract near Shady Hills.
The decision angered environmentalists, who said the county was backing off a settlement agreement to preserve wildlife. The goal of providing corridors was to help deer and other creatures safely travel between preserves and well fields as new development crops up.
County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said Thursday she thought the smaller corridor was proper, given that the county had land nearby and 38 percent of the developer's land was unbuildable.
However, she said, it might have been wise to postpone a decision until the consultant made his case at the workshop.
"Hindsight being what it is ... the thing that I would regret was, I was asked for a continuance," she said, adding that "if DCA kicks it back, we have to comply."
Commissioner Pat Mulieri said Thursday the county needs to more clearly define the difference between habitat and corridor.
"We'll just have to do what the law says," Mulieri said. However, "I just don't see a fairness there."
Gulf Coast Conservancy, which sent a letter to DCA opposing the commission's vote, cheered the state agency's verdict.
"A ruling like this gives me hope for the future of our county," said Julie Wert, the group's coordinator. "We spent a lot of time and a lot of money. If DCA is requiring the county to follow this plan, then our county's future is brighter."
In its response to the county, DCA officials said the county did not provide facts and analysis that justified the smaller corridor or showed that the area was suitable for increased development "in light of the sensitive nature of the site."
It said to remedy the problem, the county could reverse course and adopt the larger corridor recommended by the consultant, or provide evidence that the smaller area would adequately protect wildlife habitat and corridors as intended in the county's comprehensive plan.
"The analysis must be based on best available data and a professionally acceptable methodology coordinated with the Fish and Wildlife Commission as well as other organizations with authority in that field," the letter said.
It also found problems in other areas of the development plans for the Bell Fruit property, such as transportation, school planning, and whether the higher density of development is needed to cover the future population.
An attorney for Bell Fruit said Thursday that he had a chance to only scan the letter but said the landowners had provided adequate analysis for their own biologist to justify the smaller corridor.
"At this point I simply do not know if the county included all the data and analysis (for DCA) that they were given," said attorney Joe Mason, who earlier had sent a letter threatening to sue the county over the issue.
He said Thursday that a 2,200-foot-wide corridor would render 80 percent of his client's land unusable.
Mason added that the matter can be litigated or mediated, and he prefers mediation.
Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker said she had not seen the letter. "We'll have to get together with staff and the applicant," she said.
Times Staff Writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.