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  1. Opinion

Pasco is protecting conservation lands | Column

There is reason to celebrate the county’s recent land acquisition, but the conservation work is ongoing, writes Pasco’s parks director.

A few details left out of a recent column may help illuminate the “murky reality” of Pasco County’s recent conservation purchase as described.

Pasco County’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program (ELAMP) originated from a settlement agreement in the late 1990s from citizen activists. The settlement agreement required a wildlife habitat protection study that identified and described seven ecological corridors. Pasco developed and implemented a two-pronged approach to protecting wildlife habitat and the ecological corridors: the willing seller program (ELAMP) and the Ecological Corridors Ordinance enacted in 2016 that protects the corridors.

Keith Wiley [ Provided ]

Project Arthur is a planned development on property owned by a Lennar Homes and Metro Development Group partnership (Len-Angeline), and a portion under contract though still owned by the Bexley Family. A request for a rezoning to increase density and intensity triggered the Ecological Corridors Ordinance. After negotiating for more than 18 months under the framework outlined in the ordinance, the developers chose to sell the land in the Ecological Corridors rather than transfer their density or capitalize on the incentives built into the ordinance. The decision to sell, or elect compensation in lieu of a density transfer, is eligible under the ordinance.

The two parcels totaling 843 acres, outlined in yellow, are targeted for preservation by Pasco County within the Project Arthur development east of the Suncoast Parkway and south of State Road 52. [ Pasco County ]

The 843.5 acres to be purchased for conservation includes acreage in the eastern Pithlachascotee River Ecological Corridor, and all acreage composing the corridor running along Five Mile Creek that is within Project Arthur. At first glance, the protection action along the Pithlachascotee River Corridor does not appear to include all portions of the corridor. From a straight acquisition viewpoint, it does not; however, additional protections were secured that may not appear as evident.

First, though the western portion of the river corridor was not subject to purchase under the ordinance, the regulations did move high-intensity development, such as commercial and high density residential, to the northwestern corner of the adjacent parcel, thus buffering the corridor. This resulted in significantly lower density and intensity (one unit per 10 developable acres or 25 homes on 250 acres vs. 2,000 single family units) along the river frontage and associated habitats within the corridor.

Here is a map of Project Arthur showing property still owned by the Bexley family at State Road 52 (orange color) and the location of the 800-acre commerce park (purple) in which H. Lee Moffit Cancer Center is proposed as be the lead tenant [ Pasco County ]

Second, if the proposed purchase were the only greenspace in the buildout scenario, concerns of restricting wildlife movement could be valid. However, to the west there exists the remaining river corridor and associated habitat protected by various local, state and federal environmental regulations – including Pasco County’s Ecological Corridor Ordinance. This, combined with the low-intensity development, certainly offers protection, albeit not as secure as fee simple ownership, but protection nonetheless. As wildlife movements and life history requirements are not dictated by lines on a map, but actual habitats existing, the combination of purchases and regulations goes a long way in supporting wildlife needs, as well as preserving invaluable ecosystem services.

Without the efforts of those involved to put such protections in place there would be a lot less to celebrate. Without the commitment to implement and support these protections, there would be no discussion on what or how much was protected. While there is reason to celebrate this acquisition, the work is not complete.

To continue meaningful conservation efforts, support and education are key.

Keith Wiley is the director of Pasco County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources.