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Study softens proposed lakefront rules

At issue is what can be developed between a lakefront home and the water's edge.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


TAMPA -- Sixteen months ago, Hillsborough Planning Commission staffers proposed regulations to drastically limit waterfront lawns and the pollution they send into lakes.

They were scolded for not consulting with several key parties, such as homebuilders, and sent back to work.

Last week, a more tentative proposal was offered.

"This report puts forth general recommendations," said the main author, Shawn College, as he introduced it. "Not specific recommendations, but general recommendations."

Tom Aderhold, an Odessa activist who persuaded the Planning Commission to initiate the study, told commissioners, "The current report is a road map for what Shawn's original report recommended."

They endorsed it on a voice vote, sending it to the County Commission for a final say.

Both reports targeted what can be developed between a lakefront home and the water's edge. Currently, Hillsborough requires a space of 30 feet, but can allow such things as swimming pools, irrigation systems and lawns.

Scientists widely agree that, compared with sod, bulkier shoreline plants do a better job of filtering rainwater as it carries pollutants off roofs, driveways and fertilized back yards.

Thus College's original report recommended that the minimum buffer become 50 feet, and nothing but native plants and a corridor to the water be allowed there.

Now, it calls for a study of how buffers work in Florida and how they should be regulated here.

College, a principal planner with the Planning Commission, said he concluded over the 16 months that an immediate buffer change wasn't scientifically defensible. Although College had found a raft of studies during the 1990s underscoring the importance of native plant buffers, all had been conducted on northern lakes.

In his new draft, College also identified a blind spot in Hillsborough's lake protection regulations.

The county's Land Development Code envisions that, for certain projects, the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission could recommend that county planners require buffers larger than 30 feet. But the state law creating the EPC limits its jurisdiction to wetlands. While it protects a wetland, a buffer legally is an upland. That left it under the jurisdiction of the county's Department of Planning and Growth Management.

"Whenever in governmental affairs it's unclear who's responsible for something, the tendency is, nobody does it," said Al Eisenmenger, College's supervisor at the Planning Commission.

Nobody did it, making 30-foot buffers uniform.

Darrell Howton, who directs the EPC's wetlands management division, said he hopes College's study will lead to a code amendment in which the planning department will delegate responsibility for wetland buffers to the EPC.

The report's top recommendation is for more education of lakefront property owners, to make them more sensitive to shoreline ecology. Most of the county's 170 lakes are developed, and many shorelines have gaps where someone dug out all vegetation and created a sandy beach, in violation of present codes.

"I have seen people expand decks, porches and homes literally to the water's edge," said Aderhold, who owns a house on Lake LeClare.

The county has a lake education program, but it requires residents to make the first move, either by attending a meeting or seeking information. Staffers acknowledged that the county hasn't tried mailing pamphlets to all lakefront property owners.

"Most people do not want their lake to decline and turn green," said planning Commissioner Terri Cobb. "They don't know that what they've done will do that."

- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.

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