County worries owner may cut trees - Move could disrupt bid to buy conservation land

By Bruce Ritchie


Leon County, Florida - The owner of 157 acres that Leon County is proposing to buy for conservation is planning to cut down many of the trees on the property, according to a Leon County official.

Landowner Miley Miers plans to clear-cut 95 percent of the wetland that covers most of what the county wants to buy to protect the St. Marks River headwaters, according to Clay Carithers, an environmental review supervisor in Leon County's Department of Growth and Environmental Management.

Miers said he doesn't plan to clear-cut the land, but he doesn't know how much he will cut. Some county officials are concerned that the logging operation could jeopardize the county's efforts to get a state grant to buy the land.

"It would complicate things," said Craig Diamond, environmental planner in the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department.

County Commissioner Bob Rackleff said Miers is being "pretty damn greedy."

"By clear-cutting it, he would gravely hurt his chances for a grant," Rackleff said. "So I don't understand his rationale."

Miers said he's following a "prudent" forest management program to thin the trees from his property. His forestry consultant said it was too early to know how many trees would be cut.

"I'm not trying to clear-cut anything," Miers said. "I am trying to be a good steward of the land and have been for 33 years."

He also says he's a victim of the city and county because the local governments won't buy his land or let him rezone it. Diamond said the county told him they're applying for the grant so they can buy the land.

Miers has twice requested to change the land-use designation on 301 acres that he owns, including the 157 acres along Black Creek that the county would buy. He said earlier this year that he hoped to build a 130-home "conservation subdivision." That's more than four times the number of homes now allowed on the rural land.

The city and county never formally rejected his proposals. He withdrew them before a formal vote after a majority on both commissions raised concerns that the development could harm Black Creek and the St. Marks River headwaters.

"They got me in a Catch-22," Miers said. "They won't buy it, and they won't let me develop it."

The county in June applied for a Florida Communities Trust matching grant for $163,400 to buy 157 of the 301 acres Miers submitted a letter to the county stating his willingness to sell.

He told county officials last month he will apply for a permit to harvest timber. As long as he agrees to meet state timber harvesting guidelines, the permit will be issued, Carithers wrote in a memo last month.

The property includes 145 acres of wetlands, floodplains and hardwood swamps, Carithers wrote.

Miers and his forestry consultant indicated the entire 145 acres of wetlands would be clear-cut except for a 35-foot buffer on each side of Black Creek, Carithers said. He estimated that the uncut area would be 5 percent of the 145 acres.

The logging operation likely will include access roads, cleared pathways for removing the trees, fire lines and drainage ditches, Carithers stated.

Miers' forestry consultant, Keith Finlayson, said he couldn't comment on the memo because he hasn't read it. But Finlayson said the operation will go beyond the state guidelines for environmental protection.

Even if it adheres to the state guidelines, the logging operation "will result in both short-term and long-term impacts that adversely affect the ecosystem," Carithers wrote. Some environmentalists complain that the guidelines do not adequately protect wetlands.

Miers also said he doesn't know when he'll begin removing the trees because it's been too wet in recent weeks.

"It won't be detrimental one bit to what they (county officials) are trying to do, and that is protect Black Creek," Miers said.

Protection of natural resources, such as forests, is one of several factors used in awarding a Florida Communities Trust grant. The trees' removal could cause Leon County to lose the grant - or it may not affect the application, a state official said.

"If you're on the bubble and you're cutting down the timber, then it definitely could affect your project ranking," said Grant Gelhardt, environmental administrator for the evaluation section of Florida Communities Trust.

"If he's thinning the timber, it probably wouldn't affect it at all," Gelhardt said. "If he is clear-cutting hardwood, it would affect it."

Diamond said the county may not be interested in buying the land if the state requires expensive restoration because of the timber harvesting.

And if the county doesn't get the grant, it would have to decide whether it can find other money to buy the land, Diamond said.

"It's an issue," Diamond said of Miers' timber harvesting plans. "Whether it is a valid issue or a significant issue depends ultimately on what he does."


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