By Michael Salerno
For Hometown News
PORT ORANGE - City leaders said Volusia County's proposed compromise scrub habitat restoration plan at the Doris Leeper Spruce Creek Preserve is anything but a compromise.
As city council members prepare to meet with county and state leaders to discuss the plan, they expressed interest in finding alternative sites to restore scrub, an endangered habitat characterized by low growth such as shrubs that attracts native species such as the gopher tortoise and the scrub jay, that do not interfere with the city's conservational and recreational interests in the preserve.
They identified one possible site, a 36-acre tract east of Interstate 95 and north of Pioneer Trail, known in city discussions and documents as the Stanaki property.
Volusia County officials sent city leaders a draft buffer plan for scrub restoration efforts within a 170-acre parcel off Martin's Dairy Road, which was intended to balance the need for scrub restoration and the interests of recreational users of the preserve.
But most city leaders, such as Councilman Don Burnette, felt there was no compromise despite the inclusion of 25-foot buffers on each side of the trails, because trees in 85 percent of the preserve would be roller chopped to accommodate prescribed burns that would stimulate the scrub habitat restoration.
"I don't see compromise in that," he said. "Prescribed burns for fire control, I don't have a problem with that. But the prescribed burn I'm talking about is my belly when I see how much of that is going to be roller chopped. That is unacceptable to me as is."
He later added: "It feels like the compromise is I give and you take."
Mr. Burnette wasn't the only one who was skeptical of whether the buffer zones would sustain the trail sites. City Manager Ken Parker suggested the trees that aren't sent to the chopping block could be lost in prescribed burns.
"How does a fire know to stop at a 25-foot buffer?" he said.
Plans to restore scrub habitat at Spruce Creek Preserve have been in the works since 1994, when the first local management plan for the project was developed. Last year, county and state leaders "conditionally approved" a land management plan calling for scrub habitat restoration.
County leaders voted to allow the roller chopping to begin last month, despite opposition from trail users, and trees along an 84-acre tract were cut down. Faced with the threat of a lawsuit from Port Orange leaders, they voted to pause the roller chopping following a July 26 meeting and seek compromise with stakeholders in the preserve including Port Orange leaders and those who use the trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding, who felt they were excluded from the process of putting the plan together.
Mr. Parker, in explaining the history of the Spruce Creek Preserve to city leaders at a recent meeting, said in the late 1980s several local government agencies, including Port Orange, bonded together to acquire the preserve property for conservation and recreation purposes in response to a proposal to develop the property into a residential area. After that, state leaders took over ownership and requested Volusia County manage it on their behalf.
He said the city's priorities related to the preserve include maintaining public access of the property for recreational uses, preserving historical resources such as an ancient Indian mound, and protecting the environmental element.
Supporters of the Spruce Creek Preserve expressed agreement with the direction Port Orange leaders wish to take.
One of them was Suzanne Kosmas, a New Smyrna Beach resident and former congresswoman, who said she objects to the county's buffer plan because the destruction of the tree canopy and the resulting wind shifts would destroy the trails as she knows them.
She said all the stakeholders must be involved in the negotiations for a workable compromise to be achieved.
"If the stakeholders who were interested had been involved from Day 1," Ms. Kosmas said, "we wouldn't have awakened one day and seen roller choppers at Spruce Creek Preserve with no prior notification that this 'restoration' was taking place."