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Skink Stink: How a seldom-seen lizard can make development unaffordable

Undulating tracks in the sand are the most common sign that endangered sand skinks live on the land.
Undulating tracks in the sand are the most common sign that endangered sand skinks live on the land.(Teresa Burney)

Few people have ever seen a Florida sand skink trail, even fewer have seen the lizard itself, and yet the threatened species' presumed presence in the soil is beginning to rack up huge costs for Central Florida developers and government.

No longer than five inches and nearly devoid of feet, neoseps reynoldsi has been "swimming"  beneath the loose sugar sand along Central Florida's highland spine, from Marion down to Highlands Counties since the area was a series of islands and the rest of Florida was underwater.

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But, recently, enforcement of the rules intended to protect the lizards has led to an outcry that they are too strict.

A Polk County School planned for the fast-growing Four Corners area, where Polk, Orange, Osceola, and Lake counties meet, expects to spend between $350,000 and $400,000 extra for the school because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined 9.79 acres of the 30-acre parcel is occupied after evidence of three skinks was found on the land. And the bill was even higher before a U.S. Congressman intervened.

The skink finding triggered a requirement that the school system would either have to avoid the area where Fish and Wildlife assume the skinks live, which would make the site unusable for the school, or mitigate the "taking" of the sand skinks on the land by buying twice as much land in a sand skink preserve land bank. School officials are soliciting bids for 19.58 acres of skink preserve, expecting the cost to come in at between $15,000 and $23,000 an acre, said Greg Rivers, associate superintendent of operations for Polk County Schools.

"We don't have the option of putting that school anywhere because you have to put the school close to the students," Rivers said.  The school system could look for another site nearby, but that would take more time and most likely it would have sand skink populations too.

"That ridge runs all through here," Rivers said.

U.S. Congressman Dennis Ross (R-Fla. 15th district) said originally the cost would have been higher because Fish and Wildlife initially declared the entire site skink-occupied.

"They were being held hostage by Fish and Wildlife because they had to build that school," Ross said. He reached out to Daniel M. Ashe, the agency's director and the amount of mitigation required was reduced to the nine acre level.

Ross said the stricter rules about what is and isn't determined to be sand skink habitat could amount to unlawful taking of land. And if local government had difficulty with the agency's new rules, it will certainly be an issue for private development.

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"I think that if this were a private development that Fish and Wildlife would not have negotiated as much," Ross said. "Politically they get bad press from stopping a school. This could bottleneck any type of development."

Calls to Victoria Foster of the USFW's South Florida Ecological Field Offices in Vero Beach were not returned last week. Ken Warren, the field office's public affairs specialist returned a call Friday and said that the local expert was out and could not be reached. He sent an internet link to the Peninsular Florida Species Conservation and Consultation Guide, which outlines skink regulations.

A Rule Change

Government protection of Sand Skinks is not new. The four-to-five-inch-long skink has been listed as a threatened species since 1987 mainly because its habitat is scarce and vulnerable to development. The lizard lives only in Florida and only in places where the elevation is somewhere around 82 feet above sea level, the sand is dry and loose enough for it to move through, and where there is food, predominantly termites and  ant-lion larvae. That translates to dry scrub land in Lake, Polk, Osceola, Orange, Highlands, Marion and Putnam Counties.

The rules for developing land where sand skinks are likely to be found tightened in 2011; however it appears to environmental consultants and Attorney Miranda F. Fitzgerald, of Lowndes, Doster, Drosdick, Kantor, & Reed that enforcement has become stricter recently.

"I think what's happening is that, now that development is picking up again, there are more people who are becoming aware of it and more lands are being subjected to the protocol," said Fitzgerald.

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U.S Fish and Wildlife made the rule change after research found skinks travelled farther than they had once thought. Skinks that were tattooed on their bellies, released, and then caught in traps travelled an average of 5,250 feet, the studies found. Before researchers thought 780 feet was the width of its territory.

At the crux of the rule change triggered by the farther travelling skinks is that owners of land where skinks might live have to prove that they aren't there. If they don't, skinks are assumed to inhabit the sand and the owner has to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to either build around the places where they might be, if possible, and/or buy twice as much land in a skink preserve. Before 2011 evidence of skink habitation had to be found before the rules were triggered.

Consultants, however, argue that this research was conducted on skinks that had been relocated and may not represent typical movement of skinks, and that the research also says that these longer distances traveled are "not the norm."

A survey to prove there are no skinks on potential skink habitat is another potential development delay. The survey can only be done between March 1 and May 15, when skinks are thought to be most active. So if a developer signs an agreement to buy land on May 16 he won't be able to find out whether the land is skink inhabited until earliest April.

A skink survey first requires hiring an environmental consultant to walk the land, looking for the distinctive S-shaped trail in the sand. If the trail is found, the site is considered to be the home of skinks.

If no trails are found, the developer orders a "cover board" survey where 40 two-foot-square boards per acre are dispersed across the site, flat on the sand. A week later surveyors come back with garden rakes and lift up the boards, looking for skink trails or the skinks themselves and document the findings. Then they do the same thing again for three more weeks. The boards attract ants and other skink food.

One track or one live lizard triggers skink protection or remediation rules. The cover board survey costs somewhere between $500 and $1,000 an acre.

Ignoring the Law

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The extra strict requirements and costs may cause developers to ignore the rules and take a chance developing without surveys, causing more harm to the species in the long run, said some consultants.  And there's some likelihood they would get away with it since consultants don't know of any cases being prosecuted.

Elaine A. Imbruglia and Jim Modica of Modica & Associates even doubt that the skink is truly endangered. If you count the acreage of Florida scrub land already protected from development, it's unlikely, they say, that the population will disappear.

But then, it's difficult to really know when you are dealing with a creature that seldom sees the sun. Environmental consultant Jim Modica said he has only seen one live skink that wasn't under a cover board.

Jim Cooper, a buyer of land for home builders, went looking to find one with no success.

"We went out there and tried to find them where our biologist said they were and we never could find one," he said.

tburney@growthspotter.com or 407-420 6261

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