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Zoning vote worth roaring over

County officials give Big Cat Refuge the right to rezone 3 acres for housing and other amenities.

By JACKIE RIPLEY
Published April 14, 2006


CITRUS PARK - Big Cat Rescue has been granted the right to rezone 3 acres next to its sanctuary for homes, parking and an alternate entrance road. But this time it was Hillsborough County commissioners to the rescue.

"These are quiet cats that need to be rescued and not an intrusion," Commissioner Ronda Storms said.

Despite recommendations to the contrary by county staffers and a zoning hearing master, county commissioners voted 5-0 on Tuesday to rezone 3 acres on the south end of the 42-acre sanctuary. The plan includes six homes for interns, parking and an alternate entrance road on N Meadowview Circle, a residential street south of Easy Street and east of Sheldon Road.

"We're thrilled," said Howard Baskin, advisory board chairman for Big Cat. "This will substantially improve our ability to move forward to accomplish our mission."

County staffers said they could not support the project, mainly because it would create more traffic on N Meadowview Circle, primarily a residential road.

Big Cat Rescue is an animal sanctuary formerly called Wildlife on Easy Street. It's flanked by the Upper Tampa Bay Trail and is off Citrus Park Drive across from Westfield Citrus Park mall. The refuge houses lions, tigers and other exotic cats that have come from zoos, circuses and private owners. Wire enclosures keep the cats in a junglelike environment.

Until now, the sanctuary's only entrance was at the end of Easy Street, a shell-covered dirt road barely wide enough for two cars.

And although a new access point will ease some of the traffic on Easy Street, it won't go very far toward solving the problem.

Visitors to Big Cat still must use the Easy Street entrance. The Meadowview Circle entrance will be limited to interns and staffers living in the homes yet to be built.

Even so, "you would be doing the whole neighborhood a favor by allowing this," said Janet Hiltz, vice president of the Citrus Park Civic Association.

There were about 50 people in the audience supporting the petition. No one spoke against the rezoning.

Two years ago the county let the sanctuary quadruple its building space, despite complaints from neighbors who said it would put too much traffic on their street.

At that time, commissioners approved a rezoning request that, over time, will let the sanctuary add a museum, gift shop, snack bar, office, clinic, educational classrooms and additional residences for caretakers.

The board's action Tuesday "brought tears to our eyes," Baskin said. "We had so many supporters, I don't know how to express my gratitude to these people."

Jackie Ripley can be reached at ripley@sptimes.com or 813 269-5308.

[Last modified April 13, 2006, 14:59:06]


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