News / Events

Bear genes add to Miami Corp. debate


September 19, 2010

Farmton hearing continuing Tuesday

An administrative hearing on the Farmton Local Plan, a development plan proposed by the Miami Corp. for 59,000 acres it owns in Volusia and Brevard counties, will continue at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

During the first four days of the hearing, the Florida Department of Community Affairs presented more than a half-dozen witnesses to support its case that the property is unsuitable for the dense development proposed on about 19,000 acres.

The department contends Volusia County's approval puts it "not in compliance" with its long-term comprehensive plan. Attorneys for the department said they would decide this weekend whether they are ready to rest their case Tuesday.

Collaborating with the state are attorneys for the Edgewater Citizens Alliance for Responsible Development, which intervened in the case.

Miami Corp. also intervened, and attorneys for the company are collaborating with the county.
The hearing, taking place in the courtroom at the Volusia County Historic Courthouse, is expected to continue through Sept. 29. The courthouse is at 125 W. Indiana Ave., DeLand.

Special Report:

The Sleeping Giant

Black bears in Volusia and Flagler counties were considered separate from other bear populations around Florida for years. But a new proposal for managing bears statewide combines local bears with a much-larger population across the St. Johns River in the Ocala National Forest.

That decision is a matter of some debate, which surfaced last week in testimony during a state hearing on a massive development plan proposed for southern Volusia.

Bears are one of many issues being discussed during the hearing to determine whether Volusia County complied with state land-use rules when approving a long-term development plan by the Miami Corp. earlier this year.

The plan would allow 25,000 homes on 19,000 acres the company owns in Volusia and Brevard counties and conserve about 40,000 acres.

Tom Hoctor, a research scientist at the University of Florida, was a key witness last week for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which opposes the Miami Corp. plan. Hoctor also worked with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on its new bear-management plan and crafted models for determining potential black-bear habitat in Florida.

Hoctor contends the Volusia/Flagler bears ought to be considered separate and distinct from the bears across the river. He testified that Miami Corp.'s proposed development could have long-term negative impacts on those black bears.

The commission's draft bear-management plan was released in June. The agency's bear biologists are conducting a series of public meetings and accepting comments on the plan, which it expects to present to its board of commissioners sometime next year.

The commission has studied bears for years. Between 2002 and 2005, strategically placed barbed-wire snares were used to collect samples of bear hair, which were categorized and analyzed for genetics to compare nine populations scattered around the state.

Locally, commission biologist Brian Scheick set up 48 snares in a wilderness belt from the Port Orange well field off Pioneer Trail to the Relay Wildlife Management Area off State Road 11 in Flagler.

In the beginning, the commission assumed the bears in Volusia and Flagler, known as the St. Johns bears, and the Ocala bears were different, said state bear coordinator Dave Telesco.

But in the end, the Ocala and St. Johns bears "were indistinguishable," Telesco said. "From a genetic standpoint, they're pretty much the same.

Using the bear-hair analysis and other information, the commission estimated 825 to 1,225 bears live in the Ocala National Forest area and 96 to 170 bears live in Volusia and Flagler counties.

While seven other bear populations in Florida are separated by distance, highways and other man-made barriers that reduce the chance of genetic mixing, Telesco said, the St. Johns and Ocala populations are much more closely connected.

He and and other state bear biologists say bears probably travel back and forth freely across the river between Volusia, Seminole, Lake and Marion counties.

"They don't have a problem with swimming as long as they can see the other side and they have a reason to swim," said Telesco. "They're actually very good swimmers."

Bears also use bridges and other man-made structures, but Telesco said, "It's actually easier for them to swim than cross Interstate 4."

The commission decided similar guidelines should be used throughout Central Florida, because similar issues such as human-bear conflicts occur on both sides of the St. Johns.

Hoctor hopes the commission will reconsider. He testified that not all of his recommendations were incorporated into the commission's draft plan and that he has not, yet, submitted his formal comments on the draft.

"In my view, the St. Johns population should be treated as an important population in and of itself," Hoctor said.

Even though he admitted under cross-examination that the bear genetics are similar between the two populations, he said they're distinct enough that the bears on the east side of the river should be considered separate.

"If that is the case, the Farmton site is important for protecting a population east of the St. Johns River," he said.

Development on the property could further fragment bear populations and impact the bears with more noise, traffic, people and dogs, he said. As is, even as timberland, it's an "intact, well-connected landscape" that plays an important role in regional wildlife movement.

Company officials say their proposal to set aside 40,000 acres of conservation land will preserve corridors for wildlife movement. They differ with Hoctor on how wide the corridors should be, with Hoctor contending bears need corridors at least a mile wide.

The commission worked with Miami Corp. on its proposed design and one of its biologists, Joe Walsh, is expected to testify for the company this week. Like Hoctor, Walsh is a landscape ecologist. A former commission biologist, Randy Kautz, also is expected to testify for Miami Corp.

To view the draft bear-management plan, visit: