WESLEY CHAPEL — After years of legal wrangling over the wetlands permit for the proposed Cypress Creek Town Center, a federal judge on Friday handed developers a sobering ruling:
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth revoked much of the Army Corps of Engineers permit for the regional mall at Interstate 75 and State Road 56. Development of the 1 million-square-foot mall is on hold until the Richard Jacobs Group and Sierra Properties can obtain a new federal permit.
Lamberth left only two parts of the existing permit intact: The provisions allowing the developer to extend County Road 54 and manage the drainage system.
The Sierra Club of Tampa Bay, which filed the lawsuit challenging the 2007 permit, applauded the ruling. The corps has been told at several turns to re-evaluate its handling of this project, said the Sierra Club's Denise Layne.
"It's very sad that repeated rulings against the Army Corps for their blatant manipulation of data to skirt federal laws to allow development to destroy our environment still hasn't gotten their attention," Layne said. "Let's see if the Army Corps can get it right this time."
Among other things, the Sierra Club argued the corps failed to ensure the protection of the nearby Cypress Creek, a protected waterway that feeds into Hillsborough's drinking water supply. In a harshly worded ruling earlier this summer, Lamberth agreed.
"The corps has failed to fulfill its statutory duties under (federal laws)," the judge wrote June 30. "Unfortunately, this is a familiar course of action for the corps when processing permit applications."
The judge wrote then that the corps failed to conduct an in-depth study that takes a "hard look" at potential environmental concerns and make a "convincing case" that there would not be significant environmental impacts. And the corps' assertion that the mall would not create a cumulative impact "flies in the face of logic," the judge wrote.
"It not only may have an impact, it already has," he wrote, referring to muddy water that discharged into the creek in 2008. Work halted for 18 months and the developers had to pay a $297,000 fine for violating the Clean Water Act.
The corps later filed a brief saying the judge should let the agency review the permit and make a decision on any corrections rather than force it to be revoked. It also argued that revoking the permit entirely could leave the wetlands unprotected.
Developers filed briefs saying that revoking the permit would be impractical because affected wetlands had already been filled and mitigated for.
They also wrote that yanking the permit would jeopardize the proposed project, which recently employed 150 workers and would create 4,000 jobs when finally built.
"The final judgment this court enters in this case will affect not only the corps and the developers, but also Pasco County and its residents," the developers' attorneys wrote, noting the mall would provide about $6 million in annual tax revenue.
Deanne Roberts, a spokeswoman for the developers, said they were reviewing the order and declined to comment.