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Swiftmud, give us proof before selling conservation lands

Nearly 20 years ago, the state announced an ambitious plan to buy 32,000 acres of prized habitat called the Annutteliga Hammock.

Turns out it was probably too ambitious.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District now says it will unload — or "surplus," as the district euphemistically calls it — about 2,500 acres of conservation land throughout the district, more than 1,000 acres of it in the hammock.

This sad end to the Annuteliga project is probably inevitable, given that the remaining parcels are in the sprawling, partially developed Royal Highlands subdivision. And the way the district is bringing about this termination is thoughtful and even creative.

But if it deservers praise, it also merits caution.

Considering that the idea of selling off conservation land goes directly against last year's voter mandate to acquire such land, and considering that the trust of these voters has been trashed by the Legislature funneling that money into other uses, we need specifics. We need safeguards — lots and lots of safeguards.

Here's the plan as described last week by the district's lands and operations director, Ken Frink, who unrolled a big map of Royal Highlands to show what he's up against.

Other state agencies, including the Florida Forest Service, got the easy part of the hammock project — buying up thousand-plus-acre chunks of old, dormant subdivisions.

The district, meanwhile, had to go after Royal Highlands one half-acre lot at time. It was hard enough doing these deals with individual, mostly out-of state-owners before the completion of the Suncoast Parkway in 2001. It was nearly impossible by, for example, 2005, when the average price of lot in Royal Highlands had skyrocketed to $38,000.

Not only was the price out of reach; the boom left enough houses scattered through the subdivision to break up any planned swath of conservation land. So here's the district's response: Sell the hundreds of lots it owns south of Thrasher Road; use the money to buy lots that will fill in a corridor to the north of the road, between two larger blocks of conservation land on either side of the Dunes Golf Club.

Of course, even those fragmented southern lots have value as conservation land. Some are large enough, up to 160 acres, to represent sizable chunks of preservation on their own. Also, every district-owned lot means no septic tanks or fertilizer that might dump nitrogen into the aquifer and, eventually, into the spring-fed Chassahowitzka River. It means no asphalt driveways blocking the water's flow through the sieve-like, sandy soil.

So, Frink said, the district will sell those lots with strings attached. A homeowner might be able to buy the neighboring lot as long as he or she agrees not to build on it. The bigger parcels will go with the understanding that they can't be subdivided into smaller ones.

Okay, but this is what we need to hear before the district's governing board approves this plan, which it will consider on May 19:

We need to know exactly how these limits on development will work — how many lots will come with deed restrictions, how many with conservation easements, how many will be re-platted to limit small-lot development.

We need an assurance that, altogether, no more septic tanks can be built in the hammock than can be built there now.

We need a guarantee that every penny raised from the sale of lots in the southern part of this property will be put into buying the lots the district says it is targeting — the ones that will fill in the gaps of the planned corridor.

Buy this land because it's just what voters want from agencies such as Swiftmud. And give us proof because we're not in a trusting mood.

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

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