Hillsborough County officials are speaking out against the Florida Department of Transportation notification process and proposed road extension through the Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve in Plant City.
Formerly known as the Cone Ranch, the preserve is among the more than 63,400 acres of environmentally sensitive wildlife habitat and corridors acquired through the Jan K. Platt Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program (ELAPP).
The deadline for public comment regarding the State Road 56 extension project has been extended to July 23. Send your comments online, by mail or via phone.
Before voting unanimously to send a letter of concern from the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to the FDOT by the public comment deadline, commissioners at their June 16 meeting addressed a similar letter sent by the county’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation (PRC) advisory board to the BOCC and dated June 4.
“To the best of our knowledge, Hillsborough County elected officials and staff were only notified of this project a few weeks ago, despite FDOT meeting with consultants and other government agencies beginning in August 2019,” reads the June 4 letter. “Over the nearly two years, the FDOT has developed a 333-page Alternative Corridor Evaluation Report (ACER) that identified seven potential extension routes, with two routes recommended for further evaluation as part of a proposed PD&E study.”
The first route involves widening existing roads and does not cause concern, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith, who moved for the unanimous board vote June 16 after expressing concern about “being left out of the process until now.”
The second route is the one in question, as it “cuts a new 15-plus mile route through undeveloped public and private lands to make the connection” between “State Road 56 from its current terminus at U.S. 301 in southern Pasco County eastward to U.S. Highway 98,” according to the parks advisory board letter.
Among their concerns, the advisory board noted forest fragmentation, habitat degradation, a conflict with the carbon credit program that helps pay for preserve restoration and “increased morality rates for the Florida black bear and other documented local and wide-ranging species that travel between the Green Swamp and Lower Hillsborough River Basin.”
The preserve’s “wide-ranging ecosystem services and their economic benefits to the taxpaying public will be negatively impacted,” the letter continues, “thus devaluing a significant public asset.”
Smith, in her remarks at the June 16 board meeting, called the 12,800-acre Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve “one of the crown jewels of our ELAPP program.”
“It was brought into ELAPP in 2010,” Smith said, “and since then our county citizens have invested considerable tax dollars, staff, work and plenty of volunteer efforts in the conservation and restoration of this precious natural area.”
Indeed, Smith volunteered June 12 at the preserve for the “Let’s Plant Some Trees” initiative spearheaded by the Hillsborough Soil and Water Conservation District, which featured the planting of 20,000 longleaf pine seedlings donated by The Sustany Foundation. (For event coverage and photos, visit Lower Green Swamp tree planting draws widespread Hillsborough support.)
Event sponsors included also TREE Inc., The Mosaic Company, Winthrop Town Centre, Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Odiorne Insurance, Rotary Club of Brandon Eco Global, Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida, Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee, Hillsborough Sustainability and Hillsborough County Conservation and Environmental Lands Management.
Smith called the planting site “one of our most essential preserves,” and in agreement was Forest Turbiville, director of conservation and environmental lands management, who spoke at the June 16 board meeting.
“This really is a non-starter,” Turbiville said, about the impacts the proposed road would have on the Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve, the adjacent Upper Hillsborough Preserve and the overall lower Hillsborough wilderness area. He noted especially the ecosystem services provided in terms of water quality, ecological benefits and sanctuary for threatened and endangered species.
“This is something that is so impactful to our Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve and the larger ecosystem as a whole that it’s just very hard to understand why it was proposed in the first place,” Turbiville said. “From our ecological, environmental and recreational perspective, it’s not something that I could ever support, regardless of what mitigating factors there may be or what carrots would be thrown out there to try to entice this particular route to be constructed.”
Commissioner Stacy White said “it’s a shame that there’s even a political angle to this,” adding that “somebody clearly dropped the ball in failing to recognize that wildlife corridor protection is a statewide issue and most certainly a regional issue.”
Now, along with elected and staff officials, the citizens of Hillsborough County are asked to weigh in on the issue as well.
Toward that end, “the Hillsborough Soil and Water Conservation District encourages all members of the community to engage themselves by offering their opinions prior to the public comment deadline,” said HSWCD Executive Director Betty Jo Tompkins. “This issue is too critical to be ignored.”
To learn more, download the relevant agenda item and background materials from the June 16 board meeting, which includes background maps and details and links to getting involved. Visit the FDOT SR 56 Extension Alternative Corridor Evaluation (ACE) Study for additional details and to voice your comments and concerns. The study is to determine potential alignments for the extension of SR 56 from U.S. 301/SR 41 to US 98/SR 35/SR 700 in Pasco County.