Group urges quick action to save sensitive land
By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
Environmentally sensitive land in Pasco County is being gobbled up too fast to wait two years to save it, says a group appointed to study the environment.
Group members want the county to take steps now to set the land aside before bulldozers make way for more three-bedroom homes. The Environmental Lands Acquisition Task Force is working on recommendations to present to the County Commission.
"What's going to happen when Ridge Road goes through and they widen State Road 54? All of that can be done in a blink of an eye," said Jennifer Seney, who works with the task force. She is the executive director of Pascowildlife.com, a nonprofit environmental group.
Some of the task force recommendations could include working with developers to buy land for environmental projects instead of setting aside land on their own property -- a process called off-site mitigation. The idea is to make up for the impact of growth on the environment, a process overseen by the Southwest Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud.
But the task force wants the county to get in on the process, too. For instance, the county could earmark precious land that could be added to wildlife corridors if bought by developers, members say.
The county also could ask a developer to buy environmentally sensitive land elsewhere instead of setting aside land within their projects for schools, parks or libraries, said Mike Mahagan, task force member and former land acquisition specialist with Swiftmud.
"If you don't need (the school) for 10 years and you need environmental lands and it's not going to be available in 10 years, which is the greater good," he asked.
Other ideas include "density transfers," where the developer is allowed to increase the number of homes per acre in exchange for the donation of environmentally sensitive land elsewhere.
Fearing that the county might be overlooking existing opportunities to preserve land, the task force members decided at their last gathering in December to form some recommendations and to start meeting every other week instead of monthly.
Meanwhile, Pascowildlife.com hopes to provide input at a seminar on environmental land programs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Starkey Wilderness Park Nature Center, where regional and state experts will speak. (Registration is $15 and mandatory. For information, call (813) 907-0200.)
Last fall, the County Commission agreed to form the task force to research possible land buys and financing options.
Ben Harrill, a task force member and an attorney who represents developers, said the task force is trying to balance individual property rights with the greater public good. The county currently doesn't require developers to set aside land for environmentally sensitive land preservation.
"But there are incentives that they might be able to offer property owners to achieve what they want," he said.
County Administrator John Gallagher said the county already is working on some land swaps.
For instance, the county has a plan to get mall developer Edward DeBartolo Jr. to bankroll a multimillion-dollar wildlife corridor near Odessa. In developing his proposed 511-acre mall site at State Road 56 and Interstate 75, DeBartolo might have to uproot about 50 acres of wetlands. Pasco officials suggest DeBartolo make up for the destroyed wetlands by paying for land that would link 35,000 acres of nature parks stretching through Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. However, state law requires developers to save wetlands in the same general area where they destroy wetlands.
As for the task force's recommendations, Gallagher says he has one basic question.
"How do I find these pieces of land and identify them?" Gallagher said to the Times. That, he thought, was one of the jobs assigned to that task force. Though Mahagan said a recent consultant's study released to the county earmarks desirable land, Gallagher said it's too broad and nonspecific. However, Gallagher said, he looked forward to getting the task force's recommendations.
"We'll see what they send us and we'll try to work with them."
-- Saundra Amrhein covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244, or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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