A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Pine Flatwoods: Current Issues in Sarasota County

There are currently at least three situations that will affect the future of pine flatwoods in Sarasota County.

ORDINANCE 2014-075

The first and most pressing deals with proposed changes that would amend how pine flatwoods are treated in zoning categories that require open space.

PLEASE NOTE: There is an email circulating with a header that states this matter will be taken up Wednesday morning -- that is an error. It will come before the County Commision Monday morning January 12th 2015.  

Since environmentalists argued for and secured a delay in consideration of this measure in November, the staff has done some great work, which included meeting with a variety of people who have concerns:

• They corrected inaccurate and misleading maps.
• They improved the accuracy of calculations regarding the status of pine flatwoods
• They produced detailed maps showing pine flatwoods that could be affected
• They added a fourth condition (#3) that can be invoked to require protection of pine flatwoods

The change would basically remove a requirement that pine flatwoods be protected as open space (providing there was an open space requirement in that zoning category and the quota was not met by other rarer habitats that are required to be protected) unless they fell into one of four categories.

Here's the packet material.

I have never been convinced many pines fall within required buffers for watercourses or wetlands (#1 and #2), so it is not clear to me that this provision would have much effect.

One significant change in this version is the addition of item 3 (unfortunately not discussed in the cover memo), which enables staff to protect flatwoods if the "habitat increases the ecological value and ability to conduct management of habitats required to be preserved or publicly owned environmentally sensitive land." This is not the case currently and is an improvement.

At this point in time the “wildlife corridor” provision (#4) is practically meaningless, because there are no documented wildlife corridors in the urban service area (USA). This is not to say they don’t exist, but the county has not documented any and there is no independent documentation of corridors in the USA. A third party could document wildlife utilization in the future, so it is important to leave it in there, but at the moment it has no practical bearing.

Some have argued that isolated trees or tree patches represent "stepping stones" or an archipelago of habitat that should be considered a wildlife corridor. In my opinion, the fact that migrating birds in particular use pines (and other trees) in this manner is an argument for retaining the trees in the first place (retaining the current regulations) and not a convoluted effort to qualify scattered habitat as a corridor of some sort to secure protection via provision #4.

One argument against the current approach is that we end up with tiny pine fragments between, for example, a curb and a parking lot in urban areas. The county displays photos that are an effort to show how ridiculous these situations are. In reponse, see the Google streetview photo of  a lone pine next to Bowlees Creek on US 41 in Manatee County. This tree has supported an osprey nest for years.

This lone pine next to our busiest highway demonstrates that
even a single slash pine can be very significant for wildlife.

Thus its not clear that the county has made a case that the change is needed. They could simply amend the current approach to require #1 through; #4 be implemented first when using flatwoods to meet open space requirements. In addition, staff is unable to predict what the effect of passing this change would have on future extent of pine flatwoods in the USA. I believe the commission and community are entitled to a rational estimation (even if it is only a range) of the effect of any proposed change.

While it is worth challenging this proposed change, there are significant threats and opportunities related to Pine Flatwoods in the county that this change does not address.

2) PINELANDS RESERVE REZONING  Rezone petition 14-34

The County is pushing a proposal contrary to the comprehensive plan to place a lead-shot based sporting clays facility on 44 acres of the Pinelands Reserve. According to the Rezone petition 14-34, an estimated 11 acres of Pine Flatwoods would be cleared in the center of this area, so that lead shot could periodically be removed (the shooters would be aiming in towards this center).  You can access the application here.

Lead shot is very problematic environmentally.
Contamination at Shooting Ranges
Weathering of Lead Bullets and Their Environmental Effects at Outdoor Shooting Ranges (Florida)
"Environmental impacts of lead shot at skeet shooting ranges.... in Florida"
From the above:

"In Florida, several natural factors, such as low soil pH, low clay and organic matter content (Chen et al., 1998), and high rainfall, can accelerate lead shot weathering and thus increase the risk of contamination of environment. However, little information is available as to the impacts of Pb shot on the environment in Florida." 

The clearing of 11 acres and the use of lead shot is problematic because according to the Pinelands Reserve Management Plan any recreational use on the Pinelands Reserve must be ecologically benign, non-consumptive, and resource-based.

Since the county proposal is consumptive (clearing 11 acres) and non-benign (lead shot) the proposal is cross-wise with both the Reserve management plan and comprehensive plan. This will be hard to challenge because the commission is pushing for more sports tourism.

The irony is that 2016 will mark the 30th anniversary of acquiring the Pinelands Reserve (then Walton Tract), but we non-consumptive, ecologically benign, resource-based hikers have never been allowed to use it. 

The Planning Commission will take this up on January 22, at 6:30 pm in Venice.

By the way: if you are not aware of the active petitions map -- check it out. 

View the announcement for the December 18th neighborhood workshop here. Please note there is NO mention of the Pinelands Reserve. Instead the expansion area is merely identified as "Subject Parcel". Whether this was deliberate or accidental the effect is the same -- the public was not informed of a significant proposed change on the Pinelands Reserve.

This location map fails to disclose that the "SUBJECT PROPERTY" is, in fact the Pinelands Reserve. 
There is also no mention of the permanent 200 acre Gopher Tortoise Mitigation area lying immediately to the West of the proposed rezoning.

3: ORANGE HAMMOCK We have an opportunity to protect nearly 2,000 acres of high quality Pine Flatwoods in the Orange Hammock project, which lies in North Port. This is problematic politically because the North Port Chamber of Commerce and some Commissioners oppose this acquisition. Ironically, this is a case of government attempting to interfere with a real estate transaction. Please let county and state elected officials know this is a key parcel.

Pale Green areas are Pine Flatwoods that total 1,939 acres.

Regardless of the outcome on Monday, please help repel the Rezone petition and support acquisition of Orange Hammock.

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