Native Florida or cookie-cutter communities?

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times

By C.T. Bowen    

Published June 26, 2016


The townhome community within the Lexington Oaks subdivision in Wesley Chapel looks like a typical Florida development. Well-manicured lawns, rear views of the drainage pond and golf course and lots so snug that a vehicle in the driveway blocks the sidewalk leading to the door.

On this morning, a visitor has to circumvent the landscaping and cross the lawn to get to the entryway. The symbolism is unintentional, but it becomes the topic of day.

Narrow path. Blocked access.

It is the same fate facing wildlife in portions of Pasco County. Just ask the occupant of the Lexington Oaks townhome.

"If they're suddenly down to a little, narrow path, it only stands to reason you may end up stopping the value of the corridor," said Judy Williams, 62.

Williams, living with her husband in the townhome purchased by a relative, was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Pasco County that brought a settlement 16 years ago requiring the county to step up its environmental stewardship. Commissioners approved one of the final pieces Tuesday, creating a wildlife corridor ordinance intended to let animals traverse protected land connecting existing preserves. It passed unanimously after some final tweaking.

Not mentioned Tuesday, but still a bone of contention, is the ability to narrow the originally proposed 2,200-foot corridor, the width specified in a consultant's report back in 2002, by as much as 75 percent. The corridor route also can be moved. It helped appease objecting property owners.

"Flexibility? That's not a good thing," said Williams. "Especially for panthers. They travel huge distances, and there needs to be enough room.''

Williams has butted heads with government in the past. She was one of the water warriors, the environmental activists whose persistence in the 1990s helped sway public opinion about the degradation of wetlands and lakes in Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties from groundwater pumping. For their efforts, she and the others got slapped by Pinellas County with a strategic lawsuit against public participation, intended to muzzle their efforts. It failed. Pinellas paid roughly $550,000 in  settlements, plus its own legal bills and issued a public apology. The state later outlawed such lawsuits.

Last week, we sat around her dining room table talking about the environment, wildlife, even theater. She is the front-of-house manager at the College of the Arts at the University of South Florida, essentially in charge of the space from outside the theater to the foot of the stage during productions. She previously had been a substitute teacher for the Pasco County School District, primarily middle and high schools, for a decade.

She was able to work her own experiences into the curriculum. When students took field trips to the Cross Bar Ranch in Land O'Lakes, Williams briefed them beforehand on water pumping, dry wetlands and the environmental disputes of 1980s and '90s in which she figured prominently.

School and stage are easy topics. But Williams also can speak with expertise about hydraulic soils, clay liners, water recharge areas and species diversity.

She doesn't understand the past reluctance to embrace the wildlife corridor, noting that conservation lots draw a premium price when they're contained amid a housing development. The preserved land of the corridor should bump up adjoining property values, she said. It is the same information county staffers have presented to commissioners and the public.

The county estimates it will need to preserve just 2,500 of the 7,000 acres in the corridors since some of the property is in wetlands, public ownership or already exempt due to prior development. Projected costs are $20 million to acquire right-of-way easements over the 2,500 acres or $26 million to buy the land outright.

Now consider the county is partners with the Southwest Florida Water Management District on a $13 million project to build 250 acres of new wetlands and fill them with reclaimed water.

"Environmental preservation is far cheaper than environmental restoration,'' said Williams, "and that's what this wildlife ordinance is to me. Once we destroy something, there's no going back.''

Dollars and cents, however, aren't the prime consideration.

"This wildlife ordinance was based on science,'' Williams said. "Do we want to live in native Florida or in a state that is nothing more than a variation of cookie-cutter communities?