A plan to establish and protect wildlife corridors met another delay in its 15-year journey from a lawsuit settlement to approval from the Pasco County Commission.
During a workshop on Sept. 15, Pasco County commissioners opted to forego upcoming public hearings in October and November. The hearings were for a proposed ordinance to establish criteria and regulations for seven proposed wildlife corridors that, in part, would pass through private lands.
Instead, the matter will go back to the county’s Local Planning Agency for more discussion. The agency’s members previously tabled the matter without making a recommendation to the Pasco County commission on the ordinance. No new date for the agenda item was scheduled.
Also, county officials plan to schedule a fifth public workshop to get more input on the ordinance. Another workshop for commissioners also will be scheduled to provide additional information including maintenance costs for the corridors and ballpark figures on the cost of choosing to establish the corridors through eminent domain rather than the ordinance.
The maze of hearings and workshops is only the latest for a hot-potato issue that has been tossed around by several Pasco County commissions since a lawsuit settlement in 2000.
“We are eager to come to a resolution on this,” said Matt Armstrong, Pasco’s executive planner for the Long Range Planning Group. “We don’t want it to be hanging around there another 15 years.”
The sticking point is how to strike a balance between conservation and property rights, including compensation for land acquired by the county for the corridors.
The proposed ordinance would be applied only if a landowner sought to rezone property for land uses of greater density or intensity, and had a corridor within the property’s boundaries.
In such cases, the county and landowner would provide property appraisals and reach agreement on a sales price through negotiation. Landowners also would have appeal rights before the Development Review Committee.
The county estimates a need for about 7,000 acres to create the wildlife corridors. Subtracting land the county already owns and some undevelopable wetlands, county officials say only about 2,500 acres would be regulated through the ordinance.
The corridors in central Pasco would link current and proposed development projects at Starkey Ranch, Crossbar, Connerton and Cypress Creek.
However, Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore said “everyday average citizens” have concerns about what could happen to their property.
“Their concern is that I’m not going to be allowed to do what I need to survive, to pay my bills,” he said. “They can’t grow oranges. They can’t grow citrus. I’m just not ready to go full force on this.”
The mandate to create the wildlife corridors – also known as critical linkages – comes from a lawsuit filed in the late 1990s that challenged the county’s land use plan. The suit centered on the then-proposed development of the Oakstead subdivision, off State Road 54.
Oakstead went forward, but the settlement agreement required the county to adopt conservation measures including the wildlife corridors. A task force recommended creation of the county’s Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Program, also known as ELAMP.
But ELAMP, which is a voluntary system of acquiring land, isn’t sufficient on its own to protect the wildlife corridors, said David Goldstein, assistant county attorney.
If commissioners choose not to adopt the ordinance, acquiring land through eminent domain is the next option, he said.
“It’s more expensive,” Goldstein said.
A guesstimate on eminent domain costs can be provided to commissioners, said Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker.
She also noted that unless the county owned easements through private land, the corridors would not be open to the general public for recreation.
If anyone wanted to try bicycling the corridors, the answer would have to be ‘No you can’t. It’s still private property,’ ” Baker said.
About $36 million from the Penny for Pasco revenues were set aside to purchase conservation land, with about $17 million invested to date. The ELAMP program has been extended another 10 years, and funds could be used to purchase other properties.
A decision on the ordinance is critical, especially given the renewed burst of development in Pasco County, Armstrong added.
“Once it develops, it’s not coming back.”
Published September 23, 2015