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Pasco channel project gives rise to dispute

HUDSON — In a strongly worded e-mail to County Administrator John Gallagher, a retired top official of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who is steering a 2,300-acre development proposal in Hudson criticized one of Pasco's most senior environmental officials for making "permitting almost impossible" on a channel crucial to the development.

Robert Carpenter, former commander of the corps' office in Jacksonville, blasted county biologist Robert Tietz for delays after Tietz suggested an examination of Pasco's coastal resources, including sea grass.

Carpenter told Gallagher in a March 21 e-mail that Tietz "is not on our side."

Pasco County and the developers of the Sunwest Harbourtowne project, which calls for more than 2,000 homes, an 18-hole golf course and 540,000 square feet of stores and offices, are jointly working on a channel to access the Gulf of Mexico from Hudson. The county is taking the lead in getting the channel approved.

Sunwest officials said last year they had found a route for the channel that would avoid any impact to environmentally sensitive sea grass off Hudson.

"My blood is boiling!" Carpenter wrote to Gallagher. "I need some help. You have to read the e-mail Mr. Tietz sent after having 85 days to review the county park/channel … He is not on our side. His action is required for FDEP (Florida Department of Environmental Protection) permit. … Please help. Internal correspondence and actions like this make permitting almost impossible. I am amazed at his boldness."

The state DEP is reviewing the proposal and awaiting a response from Pasco and Sunwest by next Wednesday on a variety of questions the department had asked about the channel, including its impact on sea grass.

Carpenter was apparently enraged by a March 13 e-mail Tietz had sent county officials and consultants.

Tietz outlined the work he's been doing to analyze Pasco's sea grass and other coastal resources, and proposed a workshop with county consultants to discuss his findings.

"My comments are intended to assist in developing a plan at the local level that will make the park and canal eminently permittable by those folks and agencies that are regulators," Tietz wrote. He said his study isn't just for the Sunwest development but for Pasco's long-range planning needs.

Tietz made clear that he's not opposed to the project, and in fact believes it would complement Pasco well.

"My perspective on those land-based resources to be protected, preserved and enhanced by the park development is that it is an ideal situation and great opportunity for the residents of Pasco County, and an attractive and valuable addition to the Nature Coast concept," he wrote in his March 13 e-mail.

Pamala Vazquez, DEP's spokeswoman, said the department's April 9 deadline can be extended. She said it's not unusual for the department to grant extensions, and that in such cases, the DEP only denies applications if the applicants consistently refuse to provide adequate responses. There are no rules on when applicants should request extensions, Vazquez said.

Tietz, who has worked on environmental issues in Pasco since 1982 and is a respected figure among local environmentalists, never got a copy of Carpenter's criticism but another county official read it to him.

Tietz told the Pasco Times on Friday that he felt Carpenter was "just being a bully."

"Pasco currently has no map showing where our coastal resources are," he said. "We've got the tools now."

Gallagher dispatched Michele Baker, his chief assistant, to make peace.

"Bob (Tietz) didn't do anything wrong," Baker said Tuesday. "But he was probably doing more than the minimum required. He probably didn't do a good job communicating with PBS&J" — referring to the project consultants who forwarded Tietz's e-mail to Carpenter — "and he's promised to maintain better lines of communication with them."

PBS&J, an engineering consultant, works for both the county and Sunwest on this project.

Baker said she thought Tietz was acting "with the very best of intentions." She said the county is trying to learn from its mistakes in an earlier unrelated project to dredge a different Hudson channel, which ran into years of problems because of terrain and funding.

A Sunwest spokeswoman, Becky Bray, said Carpenter was out of town Tuesday. She said Pasco has signed off on the channel and attached county park.

"It is very frustrating when the county has its approvals and is ready to move to the next step and someone wants to start over," Bray wrote in an e-mail to the Times.

As the process moves forward, lots of agencies will review the park and the channel's environmental standards, Bray said.

Tietz has now scheduled a meeting with PBS&J on Friday, Baker said.

Has Tietz been ordered to stop his review of coastal resources?

"No," Baker said. "But he's been asked to hurry up and get some closure."

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at [email protected] or (813)909-4613.

Pasco channel project gives rise to dispute 04/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2008 2:16pm]
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