Southwest Florida Water Management District Moves Forward with Controversial Land Swap

Southwest Florida Water Management District moves forward with controversial land swap with developers that threatens Florida Black BearsBrooksville ” Despite impassioned calls from national, regional , and local community and conservation organizations to protect habitat for Florida Black Bears, today the Coastal Rivers Basin Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District voted to allow a controversial land swap to move forward.The controversy swirling around a seemingly unlikely partnership between a government agency charged with protecting natural resources and a mega development proposing 2500 homes for coastal lands along the Gulf of Mexico has been growing over the last year or so. The District is proposing to swap away valuable Florida Black Bear habitat essential for a continuous and viable wildlife corridor for the Chassahowitzka population of black bears. The developers of proposed Sunwest Harbourtowne development need land currently owned by the public to ensure their ability to build more housing. They would in turn swap land to the District.Joe Murphy, Florida Program Director of the Gulf Restoration Network, observed today “This proposed land swap sets a dangerous precedent. From now on when developers need a little more high ground for more houses or golf courses is the District going to open up the list of public lands and deal away more valuable habitat? This is bad public policy and bad for Florida’s Black Bears.”Conservation groups have pointed out that while the acre per acre numbers of the swap seem on the surface to favor the District, the deeper story is that developers will get essential lands needed for their development while the District will be giving away land critical to the survival of Florida Black Bears in the southern Nature Coast. Further, much of the land the District would receive is coastal wetlands which, while valuable in their own right, should already be protected from development. In a somewhat unprecedented and highly controversial move, the District has gone so far as to actually be the co-applicant with Sunwest Harbourtowne on their Development of Regional Impact permits (DRI). This essentially puts the District’s seal of approval on a 2500 home mega development proposed along the Gulf of Mexico while numerous local, state, and federal agencies are still reviewing the project’s potential negative impacts on coastal habitat, coastal water quality, and sustainable coastal development in terms of the coastal high hazard zone and insurance issues.Opposition to the land swap is coming from local organizations like the Gulf Coast Conservancy, regional and state organizations like the Gulf Restoration Network, and national organizations like Defenders of Wildlife.”Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization, established our Florida Program in 1994 with the ‘Habitat for Bears Campaign’ to protect the threatened Florida Black Bear and its natural community,” said Laurie Macdonald, Florida Director. “Through citizen action, education, scientific based solutions, and legal action we have not veered from our objective to include protection of the Chassahowitzka population as an important part of our work. Maintaining connections across a sizeable range of habitat is essential to preventing the disappearance of this imperiled population of Florida bears.”Opponents of the land swap and the proposed Sunwest Harbourtowne DRI vowed to continue their efforts to stop this project and swap from going forward. This proposed swap and mega development faces numerous steps in the public review and permitting process, and opponents pledged to speak out for the Nature Coast and Florida Black Bears at every step along the way.For more information about Florida Black Bears, please visit:http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/article474391.ece