Tortoise territory apprized

A 73-acre "diamond" near Nye Park could become a preserve.

By Elizabeth Miller Times Correspondent
Published October 19, 2007

If you live in Lutz, chances are pretty good that you've stopped your car to let turtles cross the road. These slowpokes may be gopher tortoises, a protected species.

Environmentalists in Lutz are excited to have discovered that 73 undeveloped acres in the heart of Lutz is home to a good number of gopher tortoises.

That's a big reason why Hillsborough County's Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program has taken an interest in making the land a conservation preserve.

Doing so could create a conservation preserve in the heart of Lutz, adjacent to both Nye Park and Lutz Elementary School.

Typically, the county builds no facilities other than fences at such preserves, but opens them to the public for activities such as hiking and bird-watching.

"There's a great potential there for environmental education," neighbor Bob Whitman said.

Last year, Whitman nominated the land for ELAPP consideration after discovering several gopher tortoise burrows.

"The land is a diamond in our own back yard," said Whitman, who lives on Lake Commiston, bordering the northeast portion of the property.

Whitman has been an ecological consultant for almost 30 years, having advised on projects such as the restoration of Cockroach Bay and Wolf Branch Creek.

So he instantly saw the environmental value of the property when he had been checking on it for its owner.

"I saw 30 inhabited burrows and other unique characteristics like natural sandhills," Whitman said.

"I was surprised what kind of condition it was in and that it hadn't been developed."

Gopher tortoises are considered a threatened species by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. State standards have recently changed, forcing developers to relocate gopher tortoises from harm's way on a development site.

"This area could potentially be a natural relocation spot," said Denise Layne, land use liaison for the Lutz Civic Association and ELAPP volunteer.

Gopher tortoises are important to the environment because they share their burrows with several other species, Layne said.

Tortoises can be gone from burrows for a week or more. While they're roaming, their burrows, which average about 15 feet long, become habitat for frogs, mice and snakes, including the indigo snake, also a threatened species.

Typically, elevated sandhills are prime real estate because they don't flood easily. However, these sandhills are surrounded by a mixture of wetlands, making the land rich in environmental value, but tough for development, Layne said.

"We've got a half side of a lake with no development on it. That's unheard of," Layne said. "This is truly a jewel."

In addition to the natural sandhills, tortoises, wetlands and other wildlife like deer and turkey, the property is also in a wellhead protection area.

The property recently ranked fairly high among a list of nominated properties.

"It's a small site," said Forest Turbeville, a county manager who was among the ELAPP committee ranking the sites, "but it's got some unique environmental characteristics."

The land was ranked as a Class B property.

"There are so few Class A sites. There's nothing to stop us from moving forward as long as it's approved," Turbeville said.

ELAPP's annual report must be approved by the County Commission in November. Assuming that happens, ELAPP will be free to approach the landowner with an offer.

The Hillsborough County property appraiser has valued the land at about $3.9-million.

"It's been in the family since the 1920s," said part owner Gus Weekley, whose mother donated the land for the adjacent Nye Park.

Though Weekley hadn't yet discussed an ELAPP sale with other members of his board of trustees, he said, "anything is possible."