TAMPA — Think of the bay breeze wafting through Snell Isle’s graceful curving streets, Davis Islanders’ stunning views of Hillsborough Bay, or the man-made fingers that make up Venetian Isles.
Many of Tampa Bay’s most scenic and pricey waterfront neighborhoods were built by pouring soil into the open water. Known as "dredge and fill," the practice largely ended in the 1970s as lawsuits and state and federal laws designed to protect marine environments made it difficult.
Now, officials in Tampa may be turning back the clock.
On Monday, the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission approved a proposal to fill in 3 acres of open water north of Rocky Point Drive, near the eastern end of the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
An Albany, N.Y., developer wants to build 16 townhomes there, each 3?½ stories high with a private dock. Residents would enjoy views of private Scarborough Park and what’s left of an 8.8 acre lagoon once part of it is filled to create the property.
The 6-3 vote followed more than 90 minutes of contentious discussion among planning commissioners, neighbors and businesses. Opponents call it a precedent-setting decision that would harm marine life, limit public access to the water, and encourage people to move into a coastal flood zone.
"The decision to change the future use of an underwater parcel located in a high-hazard area simply boggles the mind," Kent Bailey, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Tampa Bay Group, said Tuesday. "Clearly, the Planning Commission isn’t taking the threat of sea-level rise seriously. That area is plagued by serious flooding now."
Planning Commission staffers found the project consistent with the city of Tampa’s comprehensive land-use plan, meshing with the goal of promoting residential development in the West Shore district. The water has its own zoning designation and it’s compatible with nearby properties. What’s more, there’s no evidence of sea grass growing in the man-made lagoon, carved out during the dredge-and-fill operation that created Rocky Point decades ago.
A retention pond proposed for the development would also help clean polluted stormwater from Rocky Point Drive before it reaches Old Tampa Bay, the staff determined.
Current multifamily zoning of the area would allow up to 170 units so the 16 townhomes proposed would not increase population in the high-hazard coastal zone, they determined.
"There’s not policy direction that clearly states in the comp plan that water should not have a land use," said Planning Commission principal planner David Hey. The commission staff didn’t want to pick winners and losers, he said.
State law makes it clear that proponent Prime Cos. can develop the submerged land it first acquired in 2006 for $10,000, said the company’s local representative, David B. Dickey. Dredge and fill may not be as common as it once was, Dickey said, but dredging is still routine along existing residential canals. He said the project’s stormwater retention would prove an environmental plus by improving water quality in the bay.
The Tampa City Council will consider the Planning Commission’s recommendation when it makes a decision on the project. Speaking at the Monday meeting, a Tampa representative said the city’s own planning staff objects to the proposal for eliminating open space, damaging the park and bringing more residents to a high-hazard flood zone.
City approval to fill in the lagoon is one stop on a regulatory road for Prime Cos. Separate permits would have to be acquired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the proposal is subject to a formal review by the county’s Environmental Protection Commission.
But early indications are good, said Michael D. Horner, a Tampa land-use and zoning consultant working with Prime Cos.
"We have every reasonable possibility of getting those permits," Horner said.
Some planning commissioners said they worry about setting a dangerous precedent by opening Tampa Bay back up to dredge-and-fill projects. The Planning Commission staff agreed it might.
Commissioner Nigel M. Joseph pressed the staff on whether the lagoon could be considered wetlands, subject to protection. Maybe, the staff replied, especially shallow parts that show wetland attributes.
Opposition came from the nearby Dana Shores neighborhood.
"It’s water that people use and boat in," said Margaret Bowles. "We’re concerned that it’s just going to start a trend of development."
Surrounding hotels like the Westin Hotel and Hilton’s Doubletree Suites also protested, saying the project would hurt their business because guests rank water views and sightings of dolphins and manatees as reasons to book rooms.
"Where does it stop?" asked Steve Michelini, a Westin consultant. "The fact that the city and the county staff can’t find policies to object doesn’t mean it should be approved. We should be going the other way. Where is it that it says you should fill water to provide development land?"