The Highlands County Commission on Tuesday unanimously rejected a proposal that would have injected them into the ongoing battle to prevent questionable development activities from occurring on a scattering of private inholdings within 3,302-acre conservation tract on the outskirts of Sebring.
The property is called the Carter Creek tract and it lies within a 17,530-acre archipelago of state conservation lands that stretches from Lake Placid to Auburndale in Highlands and Polk counties. The sites predominantly are composed of scrub habitat, the home of a number of species found nowhere else on the planet.
The Carter Creek property itself is home of 37 protected species, said Jennifer Myers, assistant regional biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The proposal that led to Tuesday’s discussion was a recommendation from the county’s Natural Resources Advisory Committee to require anyone owning a parcels totaling less than two acres within the defined Carter Creek megaparcel to secure an environmental clearance regarding the presence of endangered species before they could proceed with development plans.
Highlands County’s development regulations already require clearances for properties larger than two acres.
The rationale of the request was that there had been a number of instances recently in which landowners took advantage of the county’s seeming permissive building regulations and the lack of local environmental review to alter habitat for road building, home construction and land clearing that might be a prelude to development.
According to one commissioner, it seems that only about seven percent of the lots fall into this category. The rest are owned by the state or The Nature Conservancy, which has been serving as an agent to negotiate purchases of these private parcels.
Carter Creek, like many similar properties in central Florida, was originally composed of thousands of 1.25-acre lots that were marketed to investors all over the world in the 1970s and 1980s. Locating owners and securing purchases is typically a slow, laborious process.
Commissioners said they agreed with the need to protect rare and endangered species, but said this proposal could potentially violate private property rights because of the expense involved in complying and would add an unnecessary layer of regulatory review.
They said if someone violates state or federal wildlife regulations, it is up to FWC or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—not Highlands County—to pursue enforcement actions.
Nevertheless, they seemed to agree that local officials need to make it clear to anyone who applies for a permit here or in other environmentally sensitive lands that they bear the responsibility for compliance or face fines or imprisonment if they are caught.
Commissioners also encouraged state and federal officials to more aggressively pursue purchases, though it was clear from the testimony that there are obstacles to that approach.
That is because some landowners have unrealistic expectations about land prices for lots that are often landlocked with no access to public roads and that the presence of private homes within a fire-managed landscape would be impractical.