Pasco County moves toward wildlife corridors

A proposed ordinance to create wildlife corridors in Pasco County is expected to be considered soon by the Pasco County Commission.

With some tweaking, county planners hope to bring a revised ordinance to commissioners in the next weeks.

Commissioners reviewed the ordinance proposal at a workshop on Feb. 16 in Dade City. Six months earlier, they postponed public hearings on the ordinance to gather additional input.

This fox squirrel is one of the kinds of animals that would have more options for getting around if Pasco County creates proposed wildlife corridors. (File Photo)

This fox squirrel is one of the kinds of animals that would have more options for getting around if Pasco County creates proposed wildlife corridors.
(File Photo)

The central issue is balancing conservation and property rights, and determining compensation for land acquired by the county from private owners.

The county needs to acquire about 2,500 acres of the roughly 7,000 total acreage needed to establish seven wildlife corridors, primarily in central and east Pasco County. Corridors would link proposed and built development projects, including those at Starkey Ranch, Crossbar, Connerton and Cypress Creek.

Portions of the corridor are wetlands that are not suitable for development, and the county previously has acquired some land through the Environmental Land Acquisition Management Program.

The options are to obtain the remaining corridor property through eminent domain or through an ordinance that focuses on buying land from willing sellers.

“This should not be implemented on the backs of landowners,” said Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. “Landowners should want to participate in this, because they are more than fairly being compensated.”

As drafted, the ordinance would apply only if a landowner sought to rezone property for land uses of greater density or intensity, and had some portion of the corridor within the property’s boundaries.

There are exemptions including existing development approvals.

The county and landowner would provide property appraisals and reach agreement on a sales price through negotiations. Landowners also could appeal if they disagreed with the price.

Five workshops were held over the past year to gather public input from residents, developers and landowners.

The issue, however, has lingered for more than 20 years since a court settlement mandated that the county create the wildlife corridors.

“This challenge is before my time. We’ve got to get off the dime and get this done,” said Pasco County Commissioner Ted Schrader. “I think there is real value in establishing the corridor. This thing has gone on way too long.”

The corridors are intended to preserve wildlife habitat by allowing movement between preserved lands for such species as the spotted turtle, gopher frog, osprey, American oystercatcher, fox squirrel and river otter. They also aid in preservation of water resources, wetlands and recreational opportunities.

The corridors will be a long-term asset, according to Apopka resident Richard Stauffer, who attended the workshop.

“I think it will mean a whole lot,” Stauffer said. “We might not appreciate it today, but someday in the future our grandchildren will appreciate the wildlife and what we have.”

The ordinance would provide two compensation methods. In one, known as fee simple, the county would buy the property outright. At an average value of $10,000 per acre, taxpayers would spend about $26 million.

In the other method, known as less than fee simple, the county would acquire use of the land, but would not own it.

Under this method, based on an average of about $7,800 per acre, taxpayers would spend between $19 million and $20 million.

However, those property valuations seemed too low to commissioners as fair compensation and likely will be revised upward when the ordinance is brought back to them.

If lieu of an ordinance, the most expensive route would be eminent domain, based on county estimates that the costs could be as much as $78 million.

However, when the ordinance is rewritten, Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore wants it to be in “plain English” that makes it clear what landowners can expect.

Some families, he said, have passed land down for generations.

“They depend on it as income producing property. It has to be spelled out.”

Published February 24, 2016

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