BARTOW — Florida Department of Community Affairs attorney David Shine referred to it as a "large acreage zoo," a tourist attraction plopped into the middle of a rural farming area in the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern.
Tracy Marshall, an attorney for Safari Wild, described the 258-acre facility as a farm, no different from the cattle ranches or government-owned natural areas in the Green Swamp.
Their statements came Tuesday during the first day of a four-day hearing. The difference is important because Administrative Law Judge David Maloney will have to decide just what Safari Wild is.
And that is important because he must determine whether the DCA's challenge of Polk County's 2009 administrative approval of the project has any basis.
Safari Wild was launched by Lex Salisbury, then the president of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, and his business partner, Stephen Wehrmann, a St. Petersburg veterinarian.
Construction of Safari Wild, which contains several exotic animals, began quietly in 2007 off Moore Road north of Lakeland.
The facility gained public attention in 2008 when a troop of patas monkeys escaped.
It is unknown when Maloney will issue a finding, though typically orders don't occur until weeks or more after the hearing. Then an order may be appealed.
DCA officials said in their challenge that they want the county's development order to be rescinded and to specify any conditions under which development may be allowed to occur.
DCA officials have jurisdiction over the administration of Polk's growth regulations as well as the swamp's area of critical concern.
Florida officials declared 295,000 acres of the swamp as an area of critical concern in 1974 because of its importance to Central Florida's water supply.
DCA officials contend Safari Wild, especially its 12,000-square-foot welcome center, is a commercial development that should have been reviewed by the agency before it was approved.
DCA officials contend Polk County officials violated their own regulations in approving the project administratively as a low-impact recreational project.
Instead, Safari Wild should have gone through review by the planning commission and possibly the Polk County Commission, DCA officials say.
But Senior Assistant County Attorney Anne Gibson disputed that and said the county followed the rules governing development in the Green Swamp.
She said there was no justification for more review to "make people jump through hoops."
Safari Wild's Marshall said the review the project went through was excessive because it is an agricultural operation exempt from most development review.
"Fundamentally, this case is about property rights and having rules applied in a consistent manner," she said.
Marshall argued that since 98 percent of the land in Safari Wild is undeveloped, it is no different from the 158,000 acres the Southwest Florida Water Management District manages for public recreation in the Green Swamp.