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Tampa zoo president in trouble for dredging, other issues at park

TAMPA — Lowry Park Zoo president Lex Salisbury is in trouble again, this time for regulatory violations at his for-profit exotic animal park, Safari Wild.

Officials with the Southwest Florida Water Management District say Salisbury never applied for the environmental permits needed to build on his 258-acre Polk County site, which includes wetlands.

In fact, water managers say, he continued to dredge even after they told him not to.

Salisbury and his business partner, St. Petersburg veterinarian Stephen Wehrmann, could soon face tens of thousands of dollars in fines for 13 unauthorized land alterations on the site, located near the Green Swamp.

The alterations include dredging wetlands, filling over natural vegetation and replacing pipes that could have an impact on neighbors.

Violation No. 10 is Safari Wild's one-acre island and surrounding moat, where all of Salisbury's troubles began.

• • •

Before April, few people were aware of Salisbury's side project. Then 15 patas monkeys escaped from the island he built.

Who knew the monkeys could swim?

The incident generated media attention. Then more reports began surfacing out of Safari Wild. The zoo had paid to build animal-holding structures on its president's private land. The zoo had sent animals there.

The private dealings that emerged began long before the conception of Safari Wild. Throughout his two-decade career at Lowry, Salisbury has been buying, trading, loaning and receiving animals from the taxpayer-funded zoo.

The total: 201 animals.

Salisbury is now on a paid leave of absence while the city — which owns the zoo's land — audits his transactions for conflicts of interest. Salisbury has maintained that he never profited from the zoo and that he never saw these problems coming.

But water managers say that when it comes to the environmental issues, he was warned.

• • •

Swiftmud officials received a complaint in May that Safari Wild had begun construction without permits.

Salisbury and Wehrmann told water managers that they believed the land was exempt from such permits because it was being used for agricultural purposes, Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said.

Safari Wild was not exempt, Felix said. All new commercial projects need the permitting, which ensures that stormwater is being properly treated and that neighbors aren't affected by flooding.

In June, water managers toured the site and observed 13 unauthorized land alterations that include a parking area, a rhino pen, a giraffe pen, a hay barn, an office building, a visitor welcome center, a caged monkey building and a horse stable.

Fences had been built through wetlands, and fill material appeared to obstruct surface waters. Larger pipes had replaced smaller ones, which could adversely affect upstream and downstream property owners.

One area that water managers pointed out as a violation was a pond — an area dredged to create a marsh for exotic animals. In June, it was half an acre in size.

But when water managers inspected the site again in August, the owners had excavated an additional 1.5-acres, Felix said, "after they told them not to."

Neither Salisbury nor Wehrmann responded to messages left by the Times.

In two weeks, Felix said, the water district's legal team will notify Safari Wild of proposed fines for each of the violations, which could range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars per acre.

Safari Wild then will get to respond to the violations and negotiate the fines before the fines go to a 13-member board for approval.

Something the board will consider is that Safari Wild has entered a preapplication process to get permits for some remaining roadwork. And the owners are dealing with the district to mitigate the existing problems.

Though the zoo paid for two of the buildings in violation, Safari Wild will be held responsible for them.

Salisbury's most recent problems may be in Polk County, but the zoo world's focus remains on the city of Tampa, which is expected to release its audit in December.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Tampa zoo president in trouble for dredging, other issues at park 11/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 26, 2008 1:48pm]
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