ST. PETERSBURG — Fifteen months ago, when word got out about a proposed mega-resort to be built at the southern end of the Sunshine Skyway, some local environmental activists refused to take it seriously.
The idea that someone could build a hotel, offices, shops, homes, a marine mammal rescue center and "Tahiti-style overwater bungalows" on the site seemed "crazy," said Kent Bailey of the Suncoast Sierra Club. Especially since the developers proposed an outrageous-sounding swap to make the project work: 998 acres nearby for 77 acres of the state-owned Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve.
Why such a seemingly lopsided deal?
Most of the 998 acres are under water. The 77 acres sit next to the Skyway tollbooths and would provide access.
Despite the initial skepticism, the project, called Skyway Preserve, has been pushing ahead in fits and starts.
The developers hired Chris Kise, a lawyer who helped oversee the transition team for Gov. Rick Scott. The governor appointed Kise to the board of Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency.
Last year, the developers met with top officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection, who had some suggestions on the best way to structure the permit application.
A year ago, DEP Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn got a personal update from one of the landowners during an environmental permitting conference sponsored by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The gathering annually attracts some 800 developers, consultants, engineers, lawyers, landowners and government officials to socialize and confer at a ritzy resort on Marco Island.
Six months ago, DEP and Army Corps of Engineers permit reviewers walked the property with developers. Representatives from the Department of Transportation, which operates the tollgates, tagged along too.
Then, in May, DEP officials sent Kise detailed questions about the project, including how many acres of wetlands would need to be filled to build everything developers had in mind.
"And of that area, has there been any review/research of the impacted resources?" the DEP's Scott Woolam asked Kise in a May 1 email.
So far, DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie said, there's been no response to the questions and no request for any state permits.
The corps has received no permit application, either, according to Angela Ryan of the corps' Tampa office.
Transportation officials were unavailable for comment.
Kise did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but the developers' spokeswoman Honey Rand said the project is on hold. The reason: The expert who is supposed to create a new conceptual drawing of the Skyway Preserve has been in Korea, working on a project there.
The future of the entire development hinges on persuading state officials to go along with the land swap proposal. The developers' land sprawls over a watery marsh that can be reached only by boat and does not include enough easily buildable property for what they have in mind.
That's why they want to swap for 77 acres of the state's aquatic preserve. If the state says yes, the owners say, the result will be a "unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a world-class, environmentally sustainable, public/private marine preserve and destination waterfront resort/recreational development" that they predict will create nearly 1,500 temporary and 700 permanent jobs.
The owners of the 998-acre parcel include Tampa land use lawyer David Smolker and Pasco County native plant nursery owner Brightman Logan. In an email Smolker sent a DEP official last year, he noted meeting with newspaper editorial writers and environmental activists and added, "Once folks understand what we are doing, they seem to become receptive."
But Bailey said his Suncoast Sierra Club remains opposed. The only thing that has changed, he said, is that now they're taking it seriously.
This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: The Sierra Club activist opposing the Skyway Preserve project is Kent Bailey. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.