Bird money could speed Winchester project

Bird money could speed Winchester project

By JOHN HAUGHEY STAFF WRITER, Charlotte Sun-Herald Newspaper. Reprinted with permission.

Landowners along northern Winchester Boulevard can’t get a conclusive answer from Sarasota and Charlotte counties about why their properties flood since the road was built several years ago.

Charlotte County taxpayers wonder why the southern Winchester extension, on the books since 1992, wasn’t completed as planned by 2003 for $13.7 million — and why it will now cost $47.4 million.

But one thing about the project is assured: Three scrub jay families along the southern extension’s three-mile route will continue to nest on the 16.7 acres Charlotte County paid $2.4 million for.

The county had little choice.

The county needs a permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for the road — which the federal and state governments mandate it build as a hurricane evacuation route — because it could imperil scrub jay habitat at Oyster Creek Golf Course.

The Florida scrub jay has been listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service since 1987.

To offset the potential loss of nesting areas, the county must buy and conserve scrub jay habitat.

With land now set aside for scrub jays and between “90 and 95 percent” of the project planned, Public Works Director Tom O’Kane said construction should begin next fall.

But that timeline is based on the county receiving a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service permit, he cautioned.

In other words, don’t hold your breath.

While permitting is uncertain, financing is not. The county’s 2007 budget includes a $31.3 million bond issue that will funnel $20 million into the project.

Revenues to finance the project break down like this: $12.3 million in sales tax money; $6.5 million from grants; $213,000 from gas taxes; $28.3 million in impact fees.

The southern extension calls for building a four-lane road along a three-mile span from State Road 776 to Placida Road, completing a hurricane evacuation route from the central Cape Haze Peninsula to River Road.

The project’s first phases — the northern Winchester extension that linked S.R. 776 with River Road — has been complete for several years.

Since then, landowners east and west of northern Winchester say their properties are deluged by heavy summer rains.

They say Sarasota and Charlotte counties have done little to address their concerns.

While commissioners approved the $2.4 million scrub jay expenditure with little comment Tuesday, they had to fend off questions as to why they wouldn’t buy similar habitat for a stalled Harbour Heights project.

“How can we purchase land for Winchester when we could not do that for Solomon Drive?” asked Suzanne Graham, a Solomon Drive landowner and also president of the Charlotte-DeSoto Building Industry Association.

In September, commissioners shelved a proposal to pave less than a mile of Solomon Drive because replacing scrub jay habitat had skyrocketed from $350,000 to $1.3 million in three years.

Commissioner Tom D’Aprile asked if the county was, essentially, giving itself preferential treatment by purchasing land for Winchester, but not Solomon.

No, County Administrator Bruce Loucks responded, because the private road was being financed by assessments from 61 landowners while revenue for the Winchester extension comes from many sources.

With assessment hikes “nearly astronomical,” many Solomon landowners wanted out, Loucks said.

O’Kane said the county would need to buy up to 25 acres in Harbour Heights to offset the Solomon project.

And even then, he said, it’s uncertain if the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would be satisfied.

O’Kane said costs spurred by rapidly escalating land values means little to the federal agency.

“Fish & Wildlife said it is not their problem, but it is their problem,” he said. “They are the problem.”

You can e-mail John Haughey at jhaughey@sun-herald.com.

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