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With green space, the truth lies somewhere in the middle

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


The question hovers over most of the developer-versus-environmentalist debates over the past few years:

How much of Pasco County's environment can we expect to remain pristine after developers have had their way with us?

Developers and their allies are attached to the view that one-quarter to one-third of Pasco's acreage is under lock and key as preservation land. So what's the harm in promiscuously adding 100,000 more homes to the remaining landscape?

Environmentalists see no virtue in that argument, scoffing at what they consider developers' bloated green space numbers. Slow-growth proponents such as Citizens for Sanity estimate that preserves make up about one-tenth of the county.

What we got here is a failure to communicate. Enter Mike Wells, the county's property appraiser. When the Times requested information that could help resolve the standoff, the property appraiser unfurled a map outlining 104,000 acres of tax-exempt property in Pasco, most of it government-owned.

The limitations of the map quickly became clear: Tallying green space using lists of tax-exempt property, on the premise that government-owned land is necessarily pristine, is flawed.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, owns about 60,000 acres -- 13 percent of the county -- in preserves such as J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park, the Green Swamp near Dade City and the Cypress Creek Preserve in Land O'Lakes.

Wells rightly calls the water agency "the real estate baron of Pasco."

The Florida Department of Transportation owns another 10,000 acres in the Serenova Preserve and the Starkey Extension near New Port Richey.

Add Swiftmud's and DOT's acreage and you've amassed about 15 percent of Pasco's land area. So far, so good.

But if you try to count beyond that 15 percent, here's the problem: Many of the tax-exempt properties grouped by developers in the "green space" category are in fact heavily developed.

A quick glance at entries on Wells' list proves the point: CSX Transportation's railroad tracks and Pasco's dozens of schools, county government centers, jails, landfills and water and sewer plants.

Also on the tax-exempt rolls are Saint Leo University, the YMCA, post offices, Florida Power property and the Zephyrhills airport.

Undeveloped? Just ask the neighbors living under the flight paths of the Cessnas in Zephyrhills.

So we're back at 15 percent, closer to the environmentalists with their 10 percent green space figure, right?

That would be true if not for one fact: Pinellas County owns about 12,000 acres at or near the Cross Bar Ranch well field. St. Petersburg owns 567 acres at the South Pasco well field. Combined, that's about 3 percent of Pasco's land area.

Our neighbors to the south, for all the complaints about Pinellas' support of ecologically damaging groundwater pumping, actually possess one of the greenest thumbs in Pasco.

Although eligible for a tax exemption, Pinellas voluntarily placed its land on the tax rolls, Wells said. Pasco taxes Pinellas at a low agricultural rate to account for agribusinesses Pinellas runs on the land.

By the Times' imprecise but close-to-the-mark tally, a total of 20 percent of Pasco can legitimately be called preservation land.

I know, I know. Developers will say we should count all the wetlands the county insists they spare in their subdivisions. Environmentalists will say Pinellas ravages Pasco with its thirst for groundwater, regardless of Pinellas' decent record as a land steward.

But notice how 20 percent represents a rough average of the developers' and environmentalists' green space estimates.

Just goes to prove that in the big debate about Pasco's ongoing suburbanization, the truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle.

- James Thorner covers county government and growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 226-3458 or thorner@sptimes.com.

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