BROOKSVILLE — At first glance, the land swap between the SunWest Harbourtowne developers and the water district seemed like a done deal.
After all, the Southwest Florida Water Management District's governing board originally listed the deal under its consent agenda, a package of routine items approved without discussion. And an advisory board had already endorsed the swap.
But after a nearly three-hour hearing — interrupted for nearly half an hour by a fire alarm at the district's offices — the board for the district, known as Swiftmud, decided to put off a vote until its next meeting.
Their rationale: There was a lot of new and contradictory information, particularly related to the legality of the land swap and the propriety of Swiftmud serving as a co-applicant on SunWest's development of regional impact proposal.
"You hear all this conflicting information (and) it makes me wonder if we've done all the homework we can do," said board member Maritza Rovira-Forino.
Board members say the extra time will give them a chance to speak individually with district officials and others in more detail.
A SunWest official said he was "surprised" and disappointed by the delay while opponents of the swap hailed it as a small victory.
Staff members of the district have worked for nearly two years on a land swap deal with SunWest, which wants to build 2,400 homes spread over 2,263 acres in northwest Pasco, some of which is being actively mined. The project also includes a marina, golf course, hotel, convention center and retail stores.
Under the deal, Swiftmud would trade 90 acres it owns south of Aripeka Road for 396 acres of SunWest property west of Old Dixie Highway. SunWest would also donate 849 acres of coastal property with limited development potential.
SunWest wants the 90 acres for a golf course, but opponents say the land is key habitat for the Florida black bear.
Bob Carpenter, project manager for SunWest, said after Tuesday's meeting that "no-growth" residents were trying everything to stand in the way of economic development. If the district board ends up rejecting the land swap, he said, developers would likely return to their original intentions to build 650 homes — though he said he wasn't sure how many would be permitted — on the nearly 400-acre tract it was offering Swiftmud.
Joe Murphy of the Gulf Restoration Network said that the board made the second-best decision in his mind, the best one being to reject the swap. He said SunWest was using scare tactics.
"It's the oldest developer trick in the book," he said. " 'If you don't give us what we want, it's Armageddon." '
The 90 acres, purchased with Florida Forever conservation funds in 2001, are adjacent to existing public lands that form a corridor for black bears, a threatened species, to roam from Citrus County through Hernando and into Pasco.
At the time the land was purchased, Swiftmud had thought the land to the south would be public property. But legal complications between the mine and Pasco County prevented that from happening. So Swiftmud officials say they regrouped, to figure out how to make the best of the situation.
Swiftmud officials' findings: If they held onto the 90 acres, the parcel would be isolated amid the new development, making it difficult to mange.
Conservationists have previously focused primarily on the bear argument in their opposition to the deal.
But on Tuesday, lawyers and other officials with those groups emphasized a legal objection, saying that a 1998 change in the state constitution should block the swap.
Charles Lee, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said that a law passed in response to that constitutional change requires the district to show the 90 acres no longer has any conservation value. But he said Swiftmud has not met that threshold. Instead, he argued, the district has only said that the 396-acre mine parcel is more valuable than the 90 acres. That is not enough.
"We believe this is an issue of statewide significance," he said, one that goes to "the very heart of the viability of the Florida Forever program."
Swiftmud lawyer Bill Bilenky said his office had reviewed the law, saying the state constitution "is not quite as clear as Mr. Lee would like it to be." He read part of the law that said lands could be disposed if they were "no longer needed for conservation purposes," something the district could show.
Lee countered that Bilenky was offering a pre-1998 interpretation.
Critics also questioned why Swiftmud was already listed as a co-applicant on SunWest's DRI.
Lee said it put the district in the uncomfortable position of standing side by side with a developer and he questioned whether the district could make "an objective decision" on the conservation value of the 90 acres.
Eric Sutton, Swiftmud's land resources director, said the district was only a co-applicant as a property owner involved in the land swap. "We are not, have not … taken a position whether the DRI is a good land use or bad land use," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.