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On the Wild Side

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  • | 8:54 p.m. September 10, 2009
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Pasco County's unique plan to create 25 miles of wildlife corridors over 7,100 acres includes uncertain incentives for landowners to go with a cost of $35 million and more land off the tax rolls.

Lay the Washington Monument down, add three more of them end to end, and you have the proposed width of wildlife corridors — called “critical linkages” — recommended by Pasco County staff and consultants.

That would be 2,200 feet each for four of the proposed wildlife corridors in north central and southeast Pasco County. The ambitious and expensive plan also calls for three other corridors with widths of 550 or 1,100 feet, because they are shorter in length.

But it is running into a buzz saw of reality, including property rights issues, lack of scientific backing and a $90 million funding gap while the county already is making deep cuts.

The concept, which grew out of a legal tussle with an environmental activist group, seems to be driven mostly by staff and consultants — some of whom do not seem to see a need for cost control measures.

Tom Hoctor, a University of Florida ecology research scientist, prefers that the long corridor from Starkey to Crossbar Ranches be a mile wide. He believes the ideal width should equal 10% of the 10-mile length.

The seven corridors total 7,124 acres. The county already owns nearly 110,000 acres of conservation lands, close to a quarter of the county's land area.

Interestingly, Hoctor has no official role in the proposal, but reviewed the county consultant's habitat study proposing the widths anyway, as if he were performing a peer review. He weighed in with a flattering letter to fellow ecology consultant, Jay Exum of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, which was entered into the hearing record last October.

Exum says he didn't even ask for the review and county officials say the county did not retain Hoctor.

Wildlife corridors are more typically 50-200 feet wide, as they are in Indiana, for example. So, one nearly a half mile wide is grabbing property owners' attention, at least those who know about it.

Asked how unusual such corridors are, Exum admits, “There are some unique aspects of what was done for Pasco.” When asked if there are similar regulatory mechanisms anywhere in the country, he says, “I can't come up with an exactly comparable one that's been made public policy in other states.”

Reality check
Pasco County Commissioner Michael Cox believes the consultants' theories lean too much to the wild side, in more ways than one. He says their ideas need to be more balanced with reality, including property rights, a concern also shared by at least one other fellow commissioner, Vice Chairman Pat Mulieri.

Cox admonishes the consultants about the 10% of the length concept that would create the mile wide corridor, saying, “So even their own theories don't work.”

The commissioner also foresees problems with the proposed regulation moving forward this fall, saying, “I think the 2,200 is felt by staff to be the ideal width, but when you get down to the parcel level sometimes that width is not conducive.” The proposed ordinance, and related amendments to the conservation element of the county plan, are scheduled for adoption in January.

King Helie, a veteran planning consultant and president of King Helie Planning Group based in Hudson, represents Bell Fruit Company and its affiliated Zeneda Partnership with property impacted by a major corridor.

Bell Fruit challenged the county's denial of the company's land use amendment for their 550-acre property north of State Road 52 bordering Shady Hills Road. The 2,200-foot wide corridor from Starkey to Crossbar runs through the property leaving just under 300 feet of width outside the corridor in one area.

The county's denial was based largely on staff's position that the corridors were already ingrained in the plan.

But now, as part of settlement negotiation proceedings still being finalized, Helie says the state's department of community affairs agrees with Bell Fruit that the corridors cannot be applied as they were merely referenced in technical support documents and not officially adopted.

Amendments to the county plan to include the corridors are now in process with the intent of adopting the changes along with the critical linkage ordinance in January. Helie thinks the widths are arbitrary, and says, “They're just multiples of each other and didn't seem to have any bearing in scientific studies.”

Also puzzling, according to Exum, is that 80% of linkages themselves are wetlands and/or floodplains. Helie says that makes those areas largely undevelopable anyway, which begs the question: “Why spend public dollars on so much undevelopable land with legal uncertainties?”

In the meantime, expect mounting opposition from more property owners to lead to changes, as word gets out and hearings are held. Bell Fruit's attorney, Joe Mason of McGee and Mason in Brooksville, says a “Bert Harris” legal action filed against the county claiming loss of property value is being held in abeyance pending the outcome of the land use amendment.

The land development code stakeholder committee is set to review the proposed critical linkage ordinance in October or November. The committee's next regular meeting is Oct. 21.

The critical linkage regulations also creates a transfer of development rights (TDR) option for landowners, but it's uncertain whether the incentives are adequate enough to dissuade owners from choosing legal action instead.

The concept encourages property owners with land inside the corridors (sending zones) to give up a portion or all of their development rights in exchange for bonus densities or other zoning incentives in other areas designated for more intense growth (receiving zones).

TDR ordinances can be complex and are well-known in planning and legal circles for complications with implementing and administering them.

Pasco's proposal includes a 25% density bonus as a permissible option, but there are at least a dozen location restrictions for the receiving zones. Developers who get over such hurdles often run into compatibility or NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) issues with neighbors opposed to added height, which Cox says will be necessary.

Mason says while it may allow the development units to be moved to other parts of a sizable property outside a corridor, moving them necessarily makes the lots smaller or otherwise could force the developer into a less marketable product. Smaller parcels may not have such flexibility.

Barbara Wilhite, a former assistant county attorney for Pasco, now with Stearns Weaver in Tampa, agrees, telling the Review, “TDR programs are tough. They are very difficult to make successful. It takes a large commitment on the county's behalf to make those successful.”

TDRs offset $90 million gap
If the incentives lack muscle, the critical linkage ordinance may end up back in the hands of lawyers and judges.

The ordinance took root in September 2000 when Pasco County entered into a settlement agreement with various litigants, principally “Citizens for Sanity,” a Land O' Lakes environmental activists' group that challenged the land use and zoning changes for what is now the Oakstead development. (The group also led an unsuccessful challenge to the T. Rowe Price project this past year, an economic development priority expected to bring 1,600 jobs over the next decade.)

The deal called for the county to amend its comprehensive plan, including the conservation element. That led to the county retaining Glatting Jackson to produce a habitat study that generally outlined the critical linkage corridors.

The issue flared to the surface when references to the habitat study found its way into the supporting documentation used by commissioners to deny the Bell Fruit plan amendment.

To have any chance of success, Pasco's critical linkage plan will have to rely on a combination of incentives, conservation easements, other state lands programs and the $35 million from the Penny for Pasco sales tax revenue.

But three purchases made so far as part of the county's Environmental Lands and Acquisition Management Program (ELAMP) average about $17,750 an acre. Were the 7,124 acres of critical linkage lands to be purchased at that average cost, the county would need $126 million. And that doesn't take into account other lands the county has generally identified for purchase: “ecological planning units” and “agricultural reserve” lands.

The ELAMP program is counting in a big way on the state's Florida Forever program, but that program was not funded by the 2009 Legislature due to the budget crunch.

Pasco County has its own budget issues, too. The proposed fiscal year 2010 budget is $45.5 million less than the $980 million 2009 budget. After cutting 25 positions earlier this year, the new budget proposes slashing 259 more positions.

And the Penny for Pasco program was thought to generate $40 million, but the recession has reduced that to the more recent $35 million estimate.

The county's environmental lands division, however, is adding an employee and plans to spend over $3 million for land purchases over the next year. Another $25,000 is in their budget for fencing, gates, posts and property signage, expenses that will only rise with future land buys.

The first item of the division's operational goals and program, as described in the county budget, is to acquire lands and conservation easements in the critical linkages. With the potential of a $90 million funding gap, conservation easements and other landowner incentives will be key to realizing the habitat purchases.

Conservation easements, however, rely on federal legislation that is subject to year to year renewal by Congress. But the $9 trillion and growing federal deficit may force an abrupt end to that program, which significantly benefits large landowners.

So, any chance for success may come down to making the TDR ordinance sufficiently advantageous to landowners to overcome Bert Harris Act provisions. If the TDR incentives are not worth more than the paper they're written on, the county could face legal costs tacked on to purchase prices for loss of landowners' property value.


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