A network of wildlife corridors is closer to reality as landowners concede most of their objections have been resolved.
The ordinance comes nearly 16 years after a lawsuit settlement mandated that Pasco County create the corridors, also known as “critical linkages.”
The linkages function as protected pathways for wildlife as diverse as bears, panthers, salamanders and frogs.
At the first public hearing on May 10, Pasco County commissioners had a presentation from county staff members and took public comment. No vote was held.
Commissioners are scheduled to have their second public hearing and vote on the issue at their June 21 meeting at 10 a.m., in their chambers in New Port Richey.
“It’s been a long road to get here,” said Matt Armstrong, Pasco’s executive planner for the Long Range Planning Group.
The May 10 hearing was postponed from last year when commissioners asked for meetings and discussion on the issue.
The lawsuit was filed in the late 1990s and settled in 2000. Previous county commissions considered, but never approved, an ordinance.
Under the proposed ordinance, landowners could “willingly” sell their land to the county. Otherwise, the ordinance’s regulations would apply 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.
Tweaks to the ordinance include a process to negotiate a corridor’s width; potentially rerouting the corridor without filing an expensive rezoning application; allowing a third party appraisal in land sale negotiations and an appeal to the commissioners; and splitting maintenance costs related to the corridors and their easements between the county and landowner.
“I’ve kind of run out of arguments against this ordinance, believe it or not,” said attorney David Smolker. He represents a client who owns about 140 acres that fall within one of seven wildlife corridors.
Mac Davis of the Gulf Coast Conservancy said county staff had listened to landowners and made reasonable changes. Now he said, the ordinance should be “rounding third base and heading for home.”
Determining the width of corridors, however, still gives Smolker and others some pause.
Keith Wiley, the county’s natural resources manager, said, “The staff will have the mechanisms to have the discussion with owners. Every piece along the corridor is different.”
But he added, the science behind how to create viable corridors is sound. “It’s being replicated across the world,” he said.
Minimum width is 500 feet; maximum width is 2,500 feet.
About 7,000 acres is needed to create seven wildlife corridors, but the county already owns some land. Some areas are wetlands that can’t be developed. About 2,500 acres is owned privately and would be regulated through the ordinance, county officials said.
In Central Pasco, corridors would link current and proposed development projects at Starkey Ranch, Crossbar, Connerton and Cypress Creek.
With the spurt of development in Pasco, Janet Howie, of the Nature Coast Florida Native Plant Society, said, “Ecological corridors are even more important to help prevent a total environmental wasteland from happening.”
Some still have concerns, however.
Land use attorney Ethel Hammer told commissioners during public comment that the ordinance would substantially affect property owned by the Bexley family. She plans to meet with county staff to detail their objections.
Landowner Jim McBride said the corridors should be more narrow. He also said there would be problems arising from people seeking access to the corridors.
“Ultimately, I believe the corridors are going to have to be fenced,” he said. “You need to protect wildlife from people.”
Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore shared that concern.
“Wildlife corridors are not people corridors,” he said. “We could have people roaming back and forth.”
It’s difficult to write an ordinance that covers every scenario, but Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein said, “There is nothing in the ordinance requiring us to leave it open to the public. It’s best to deal with those on a case by case basis.”
Published May 18, 2016