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Feds warn Collier County that land-use votes that harm panthers may violate law

The federal government just fired a warning shot at a Florida county, saying that its recent land-use decisions benefiting a landowner "may have violated" the Endangered Species Act.

The warning is aimed at protecting Florida panthers and red-cockaded woodpeckers, two species on the endangered list that have been found on 1,100 acres near Naples called the HHH Ranch.

The warning, issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, noted that the owners of the ranch have been allowed by Collier County to clear land, cut timber, extend a road and push ahead with plans for a rock mine.

"The activities the county has approved … could result in the take of federally protected species, and the county could be liable for violating federal law," says the Aug. 15 letter from Larry Williams of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Williams acknowledged in an email to the Times that it's unusual for the wildlife service to jump on a local government for its land-use votes.

"These letters are very rare," wrote Williams, field supervisor of the agency's office in Vero Beach. He said he took that step after "we were alerted by our own agency staff and by community organizations" about HHH Ranch and its owners, Dr. Francis Hussey and his wife, Mary Pat.

The Husseys' attorney, John Vega, called Williams' letter "a scare tactic" based on one-sided information. He said the Husseys, major landowners in Collier County and in New York, have repeatedly consulted with biologists on how to avoid harming panthers or woodpeckers.

Collier County officials said they received the letter Monday but declined to comment.

Williams' letter has already sparked a suit against the county filed Wednesday by St. Petersburg lawyer Tom Reese. The lead plaintiffs are listed as "Florida panthers" and "red-cockaded woodpeckers." Also suing: the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Collier County Audubon Society, which have been the Husseys' sharpest critics.

Reese said he hopes the letter to Collier County gets the attention of officials in surrounding counties who have made similar land-use decisions detrimental to panthers, the state animal.

Panthers have been documented roaming across the Husseys' ranch, which lies north of Interstate 75 in an area called North Belle Meade. In 1998, a female panther had a litter of three kittens on land next to the ranch. In 2007, a panther was run over on Interstate 75 near it.

In 2002, Collier County — under pressure from then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet — changed its rules on rural growth to better protect the aquifer and wildlife habitat. One part of the change banned mining in North Belle Meade and limited development there. The Husseys sued the county and state for $92 million, contending their rights had been confiscated.

Meanwhile, the Husseys cleared some of their land and cut trees on hundreds of acres, prompting complaints from environmental groups. Vega said they were merely getting rid of exotic vegetation, which improved it as wildlife habitat.

In 2011, a judge dismissed the suit, but the Husseys appealed. Now the two sides are on the verge of a settlement that would allow the Husseys to get development and mining permits on part of their land. Collier commissioners approved the deal, and a judge is scheduled to sign off on it Monday.

Williams did not respond to a question about what he would do if Collier County ignores his letter. The consequences could be severe. In 2010, Kauai County officials in Hawaii admitted that their utility's bright lights killed or wounded more than 18 migratory birds and paid $48,000 in penalties.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at