Water district lawyers hit Lowry Park Zoo president Lex Salisbury with a $46,036 fine Wednesday for excavating ponds and dredging without the proper permits to create his for-profit Polk County exotic animal park.
But Safari Wild owners will get a chance to negotiate that fine — and they will, said Salisbury's business partner Stephen Wehrmann, a St. Petersburg veterinarian.
"I'm not saying we didn't make some mistakes," he said. But there have been misunderstandings.
Officials with the Southwest Florida Water Management District say they learned in May that construction had taken place at the 258-acre Safari Wild site, but no environmental permits had been pulled.
All new commercial projects need those permits, which ensure that stormwater is being properly treated and that neighbors aren't affected by flooding.
In June, water managers visited Safari Wild and documented a dozen unauthorized land alterations on the site, which is near the Green Swamp, an area crucial to drinking water supplies.
They include a parking area, a rhino pen, a giraffe pen, a hay barn, an office building, a visitor welcome center, a caged monkey building, a horse stable and a 1-acre monkey island.
Fences had been built into wetlands, and fill material appeared to obstruct surface waters. Larger pipes had replaced smaller ones. Marshes were created.
In all, 3.4 acres were excavated, 1.83 acres filled and 1.22 acres covered with impervious material.
Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix said Safari Wild owners continued to dredge after they were warned not to — a marsh had grown from half an acre to 2 acres when inspectors visited again in August.
But Wehrmann said Wednesday that wasn't the case.
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From the beginning, Wehrmann says, he and Salisbury considered the project agricultural — a working game farm that offered private tours. They didn't think to get permits for pole barns or monkey cages, since they didn't think those would be classified as commercial buildings.
"We're not big-time developers," he said. "We're both animal people. … We just didn't know all these things came into play."
They also didn't think they needed permits to patch up their roads with sand. Or to replace an old pipe with a new one, slightly larger in size.
And when they met with water district officials this summer, he said they were never told not to continue creating the marshes.
Communication was lacking then, Wehrmann said, but it's not lacking now. Safari Wild already has started working with the district to secure permits for remaining road work.
"We're working with them to solve these problems," he said.
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Safari Wild will have 14 days to respond to Wednesday's consent order and begin the negotiation process. If both sides agree to the fines and actions, they will submit the agreement to a 13-member board for approval.
They will have to pay the fine within 10 days. And within 30 days, they can do one of two things:
• Submit an application for permits to authorize all the building that already has been done and have the existing structures examined for approval.
• Submit a plan to restore the property to its original condition.
If the two sides can't agree, the case will go into litigation.
Wehrmann says a lot of the violations are minor and can easily be corrected. Salisbury did not return a phone message seeking comments.
The fine from Swiftmud is not Salisbury's only problem.
Salisbury, who earns more than $300,000 annually, remains on a paid leave of absence during a conflict-of-interest investigation of his private dealings with the zoo, including exchanges of animals.
Tampa city auditors plan to release their findings next week.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.