A network of conservation corridors to provide safer pathways for wildlife in Pasco County finally is more than just lines on a map.
Still, it took a few tweaks at a June 21 public hearing before Pasco County commissioners could approve an ordinance stuck in planning limbo for years.
In the end, the corridors made some happy, others less so.
“This ordinance is scientific, viably provable and defensible,” said Mac Davis of the Gulf Coast Conservancy. He addressed the commissioners during public comment at the hearing.
“It is imminently fair to everyone,” he said. “It is so long overdue. If it needs some tweaking later, we can address that…but, let’s get this show on the road.”
Attorney David Smolker generally praised the hard work of county staff in rewriting portions of the ordinance to meet objections of landowners. But, he said concerns remained about property rights and the cost to landowners.
“You’re going to run into problems on a case-by-case basis,” Smolker told commissioners.
About 2,500 acres of approximately 7,000 acres needed for the corridors runs through private land.
In Central Pasco, corridors will link current and proposed development projects at Starkey Ranch, Crossbar, Connerton and Cypress Creek.
A letter submitted by the Bexley family declared the ordinance an unconstitutional burden on property rights for those with corridors crossing their land. The Bexleys own a large spread at the southeast corner of Suncoast Parkway and State Road 52, which will become part of a master-planned community.
Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore said landowners who contacted him worried about public access onto and across properties. Owners with small parcels are especially worried about loss of privacy, he said.
“People would prefer not to have people walking through their backyards, whether they are observing birds or taking a walk, or whatever it is,” Moore said.
Staff added a graph outlining a process for the property owner to participate in decisions about access and what passive types of recreation could be allowed.
“Not every piece would be appropriate for any passive amenity,” said Keith Wiley, the county’s natural resources manager. “Every situation would be different. But, (the ordinance) would at least give citizens that are concerned an opportunity to provide input to the process.”
There are seven corridors countywide mapped out as natural pathways for diverse wildlife including spotted turtles, gopher frogs, ospreys, fox squirrels, bears and river otters. County officials also say the corridors help preserve water resources and wetlands.
Nearly 16 years ago, a court settlement mandated that Pasco create the corridors, also known as “critical linkages.” Previous commissions tried and failed in that mission.
Janice Howie of the Nature Coast Florida Native Plant Society told commissioners time was running out as new development gobbles up open land. As an example, she said 20 or so bears in the northwestern corner of the county are hemmed in by houses and U.S. 19, unable to migrate to more natural habitats.
“We will probably not be in a position to form corridors if we wait another 16 years, because there won’t be enough land,” she said.
County staff initiated new discussions on the corridors in April 2015. Meetings were held throughout the county to gather input, and portions of the ordinance rewritten.
Among adjustments were a process to negotiate the corridor’s width; a chance to reroute the corridor without filing an expensive rezoning application; and splitting maintenance costs for corridors and easements between the county and landowner.
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 for existing development approvals.
The county can buy corridor property outright or acquire use of the land, but not ownership. Landowners would be compensated. When disagreements arise over issues such as sales price, location or boundaries of the corridors, landowners can appeal to the commissioners.
“We made the process very fair, very clear,” said Matt Armstrong, the county’s executive planner for the Long Range Planning Group. “Every little nut and bolt must function properly.”
Published June 29, 2016