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Advocate: Don't bury tortoises (Terry Witt)

CITRUS COUNTY CHRONICLE (Lecanto, Florida) 08 January 05 
A wildlife advocate is fighting to prevent 50 gopher tortoises from being buried alive in a future Lecanto residential community, but the animals may be doomed despite Jim Kantor's efforts.
Kantor filed an appeal challenging a state permit that grants property owner Richard Stafford the legal right to bury the tortoises alive in their burrows if he chooses.
Stafford owns 83 acres of undeveloped property next to Crystal Oaks and Connell Heights in Lecanto. He plans to develop the property into Westchase subdivision. An estimated 92 tortoises are living on the property. Forty-nine animals live in phase one.
More importantly, four of the tortoises in phase one are sick with an upper respiratory tract disease. To contain the disease, state law prohibits Stafford from relocating the infected tortoises to an offsite location. The same rule applies to the other 88 tortoises living on the same piece of property, regardless of whether they have the illness.
Under the law, developers can purchase a permit to entomb the animals, or they can relocate them on the same piece of property.
The law is intended to prevent spread of the disease.
The 49 animals in phase one would be the first to die. The permit fee for Stafford is $68,000.
"Once they are sealed and entombed, they slowly die," Kantor said.
One issue raised by Kantor in his appeal to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is that Stafford's application for the permit contains a map of Westchase with a much larger version of phase one than that approved by the county. He wants to know why.
Stafford's environmental consultant, Mike Czerwinski, said the phase one pictured in the application is larger because it includes all the areas where construction activity might impact tortoise habitat when developed. But he said it doesn't change the subdivision map approved by the county commission.
Kantor also complains he wasn't given the right documentation to challenge the permit until it was almost too late to file the paperwork.
Tortoises are ground-dwelling turtles. They burrow in the ground and live at the end of the long tunnels. Their favorite habitat in Florida are sand hills, which also happens to the area where residential development is heaviest in Citrus County and many other areas of the state. The state's rapid growth has caused tortoise populations to decline and they are listed as a species of special concern.
Kantor said his goal is to convince the state that Stafford should exercise the most humane option at his disposal, to relocate the tortoises to future phases of the Westchase development. He said it's the right thing to do for the tortoises, and he said the other phases won't be developed for years.
But Stafford's daughter, Tracy Destin, a vice president in her father's company, CDR Investments, said Kantor's plan makes no sense in the long run. She said if the tortoises are relocated to phase two, they would have no place to go when phase three was developed because the animals are considered an infected population.
Stafford originally volunteered to relocate the tortoises. The relocation would have cost him $15,000 less than the permit. But when four tortoises tested positive for the respiratory disease on the Westchase property, Destin said her father was forced by state law to change his plans and use the more expensive permit method.
"The rules govern what needs to be done," Czerwinski said. "This is an unfortunate thing for Mr. Stafford. It's costing him $15,000 more to use the (permit)."