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Everyone benefits

January 14, 2012
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The city of Cape Coral did the right thing in entering into a scrub jay mitigation agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Lee County last year.

The plan calls for the city to contribute $788,000 between 2014-2018 to establish and maintain habitat for the threatened species in a regional mitigation area on 20/20 Conservation land in Alva.

In exchange, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agrees the city has adequately complied with federal protection regulations that go into effect when jay "families" are found in an area that includes not only nests but the number of acres required to sustain the birds.

In the case of the Cape, two scrub jay families - mating pairs and their immature and adult but not-yet-mated offspring - have been detected in the area of Kismet Parkway and Nelson Boulevard in and around some 215 acres purchased as the city's future Festival Park. The discovery has held up the possibility of park development and also began the process for mandatory mitigation up to and including the establishment of more bird-friendly acreage. Mitigation requires the setting aside of improved habitat and, had the city opted to do that on-site, it would have limited any future use of the park to passive recreation.

Not only would that have cost more than the $788,000 called for in the agreement, it would have meant no festivals at Festival Park, including the popular R/C air shows currently being held on the yet-to-be-developed site.

The agreement also took things a step further.

In addition to establishing an acceptable and cost-effective mitigation plan for the park and surrounding area, it 1) held in abeyance a citywide environmental survey to see if additional scrub jays had established residency and 2) umbrellaed mitigation citywide.

This waiver precludes any future possibility that the city could find itself in a similar situation with, say, the Academic Village site.

It also precludes the possibility that private property owners could be forced into individual permit, survey and mitigation efforts. Using fees assessed in areas of the state where the jays have been found and no mitigation agreement is in place, that cost is estimated at nearly $27,000 for a residential building lot now selling for $5,000 and less.

Again, a very wise move by the city.

The question now is how to pay for the mitigation project.

City officials and staff have looked at a couple of things.

In November, council was presented with an option that called for a $125 fee to be added to building permits for new homes and remodels.

This week, council was asked to consider instead a citywide "assessment" of up to $10 per home.

No decision has been made and the city is still in exploration mode.

A couple of things for consideration.

First, everyone benefits. The cost of mitigation should be shared with that in mind.

Every taxpayer in Cape Coral contributed to the purchase of the land assemblage that went into the Festival Park project. While the city could not provide figures this week, much of the land was purchased at the height of the boom and the cost is in the millions of dollars.

Yes, millions with a very big "s."

The city's land assemblage efforts are continuing and we all are continuing to pay.

We only benefit, though, when the park is developed.

That's the primary reason the previous council approved the mitigation plan.

There also is a secondary benefit - those who say the owners of undeveloped properties get a significant benefit are correct.

This, of course, assumes a worst case scenario - that either there are undetected scrub jay families hither and yon throughout the Cape or a mass redistribution of the territorial birds happens as occurred in North Port following Hurricane Charley.

Let us be clear.

Currently, there are no scrub jay permitting regulations in effect in Cape Coral as there are in some communities, including North Port.

Builders and developers are not required to pay for per parcel surveys or mitigation efforts here.

The benefit private properties owners will receive is that the agreement guarantees they never will have to. The city likened it to an insurance policy.

That is a good analogy and a very good benefit.

So is the fact that the waiver includes commercial sites such as the Zemel property, just a stone's throw down the road from Festival Park as the bird flies.

In this economy, "insurance" that commercial development projects - read jobs - won't be held up by an environmental issue is a good benefit, indeed.

So who should pay?

If he-who-pays comes down to he-who-benefits, that's all of us.

Something for council to keep in mind as it comes up with an equitable payment plan.

- Breeze Newspapers editorial



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