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Farms don't fit intent of environmental fund

A Times Editorial
Published September 20, 2005

East Pasco's agricultural interests shouldn't look to the public trough for their next cash crop.

Up to 20 northeast Pasco residents are, however. An attorney representing them is seeking remuneration if changes are made to the county's comprehensive land use plan. Specifically, some northeast Pasco landowners are worried about losing the development potential of their property as the county considers new standards to preserve the rural lifestyle of the area north of State Road 52 and east of Bellamy Brothers Boulevard. The proposed standards require new homes on 1- to 10-acre lots.

A conservation subdivision, in which homes are clustered on half of the property and the other half is preserved as open space, is an acceptable alternative.

We don't fault their attorney Clarke Hobby for looking out for his clients, but his choice of funding solutions is problematic. He suggests using money from the county's fledgling environmental land preservation program to buy agricultural land in northeast Pasco.

Forget it. The county's environmental land buying program hasn't settled on its first parcel for protection, and already Hobby wants a piece of the pie. The program carries strict criteria for eligibility. Land, for instance, would need to serve as a recharge area for the aquifer, or perhaps link existing wildlife protection areas. Two years ago, a land preservation task force identified 6,200 acres considered critical for joining existing preserves like Starkey Wilderness Park, Cross Bar Well Field and Cypress Swamp.

If landowners in east Pasco think their properties qualify, then by all means nominate them for acquisition and let the land be scrutinized by the selection committee. But the property will need to serve a greater public purpose than preserving somebody's view of a meadow.

Besides, the preservation effort, known as eLAMP for Environmental Land Acquisition and Management Program, is hardly rolling in dough. Most of the sales tax proceeds are earmarked for school and road construction. Just more than $3-million annually, if projections are accurate, is available for preserving green space. Considering the skyrocketing cost of property values, that isn't going to buy much open farmland.

To stretch those dollars, eLAMP intends to partner with existing state funding sources to buy sensitive land. Don't expect the state or Southwest Florida Water Management District to pony up dollars just because the land use rules are changing in Darby and points east.

Hobby offered a couple of other alternatives for consideration. The county could create a special taxing district in northeast Pasco to compensate landowners for lost development rights, or the county could allow the landowners to sell development rights to property owners in other parts of Pasco.

That second idea seems unrealistic, however, because other parts of the county are saturated with high-density development. There will be no market for additional building credits until other areas in Pasco face development limits beyond three homes per acre. The special taxing district is the most palatable of Hobby's three proposals.

The rural development standards are to be the topic of public meetings Thursday and Oct. 4. Attempting to preserve the rural lifestyle in northeast Pasco is a worthy effort. But it is imperative that attempts to mollify current grove and pasture owners there preclude inappropriate use of the county's environmental land acquisition program.

[Last modified September 20, 2005, 19:49:11]

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