Coastal development under scrutiny


Published: Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

A controversial development on the Taylor County coast continues to be met with objections from environmental groups and state agencies, which question the impact of a golf course, hotel and condominiums on wetlands near the Gulf of Mexico.

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Yet Dr. J. Crayton Pruitt's project was poised to receive a critical vote of approval this week from the Suwannee River Water Management District - until Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole personally intervened.

Now environmental advocates are rallying opposition in advance of a rescheduled Feb. 12 vote. They say the project could harm coastal water quality and nearby seagrass beds, while ushering in the development of a rural area with one of the last stretches of pristine, privately owned coastal land in the state.

"We really feel like this is Florida's last frontier," said Joe Murphy, Florida program coordinator of the Gulf Restoration Network. "It's our last chance to get it right in Florida."

Pruitt, a retired St. Petersburg heart surgeon, is proposing 624 condominiums, a 874-room hotel and an 18-hole golf course in an area called Boggy Bay near Dekle Beach. The project would fill 39 acres of wetlands and indirectly impact another 5.5 acres.

In exchange, Pruitt would preserve, restore and create a total of 257 acres of wetlands and buy three credits from a wetlands mitigation bank. Beverly Birkitt, a Tampa environmental consultant for the project, said the "fruit-salad approach" of projects would mitigate the lost wetlands.

"However you cut it, there's significantly more mitigation being provided than what is required," she said.

Suwannee River Water Management District officials recommended approval of the project to the district governing board. A vote was slated for Tuesday until Sole's intervention lead to the delay.

The Department of Environmental Protection had issued a letter in October outlining concerns. They included the project's impact on wetlands and the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve, as well as a lack of information on issues such as where the project would get its water.

"The filling and dredging of vital wetlands adjacent to the preserve will allow contaminants and nutrients to enter the preserve unabated," an environmental specialist for the preserve wrote in the letter.

The department hadn't received a response to those concerns when the district issued a Dec. 21 memorandum recommending the project be approved. A vote was scheduled less than three weeks from the date, leading to questions of the timing around the holiday season.

"This one caught us a little by surprise," said department spokeswoman Sarah Williams.

Jon Dinges, the water district's resource management director, said officials there believed the applicant addressed the district's concerns. Some of the issues raised by the state agencies fell outside the district's permitting process, he said.

"We're not required to ask those questions of the applicant and they're not required to answer them," he said.

He said the decision was delayed as a courtesy to the department. Birkitt said she was now working with the department to answer all questions.

SUBHEAD IN COPYf=Garamond Bk I s=14 l=15Saga continues

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The controversy is the latest chapter in a two-year saga in which widespread opposition led to major aspects of the project and even its name being changed.

The project was originally called Magnolia Bay and would have included a marina on the gulf. Pruitt had proposed building an access channel that would have meant cutting a 36-acre swath through the state seagrass preserve.

Nearly every environmental permitting agency and group raised objections. Pruitt dropped the marina and channel, added the golf course and changed the name to the Reserve at Sweetwater Estuary.

But environmental groups and state agencies have continued to raise questions.

The Department of Community Affairs found the project was inconsistent with Taylor County's comprehensive plan and state law requiring protection of coastal wetlands. The Department of Environmental Protection questioned why the golf course was located on wetlands and not further upland on the 1,250-acre project site.

A water district analysis found the wetlands in question are called hydric hammock, a mix of oaks, cypress and other plants that are typically found in places where limestone is near the surface and springs are located.

The wetlands are home to wading birds and are found along much of the state's Big Bend region but are rare in Taylor County, according to the district study. In October, a district official wrote Pruitt to question why a project without a marina still needed to be so close to the gulf.

"The current proposal featuring a golf course does not require close proximity and access to the gulf," the letter said.

Revisions to the project reduced wetland impacts, which fell to 44.5 acres from 134 acres in a previous version. While seven holes of the golf course were moved to an uplands portion of the property, Birkitt said the rest must stay put to maintain proximity to the rest of the development.

"We want it to be a golf cart community where people can easily move around," she said.

Officials have also questioned a lack of information on where the development would get water and how the rest of the project site might be developed. Pruitt has not sought a groundwater permit from the district and has not requested to obtain water from the Taylor Coastal Water and Sewer District.

Birkitt said the effort was concentrated on getting permission for the wetlands work, leaving water and other issues for later.

"All that is yet to be worked out," she said.

The Gulf Restoration Network's Murphy said Sole's action to stop the vote shows the project must undergo more scrutiny.

"If this had been proposed 20 years ago it might have slid right through," he said. "It's a new day in Florida."

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or crabben@gville sun.com.

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