HUDSON — SunWest Harbourtowne, the upscale coastal resort proposed for the northwest corner of Pasco County, hasn't given up hope for a deepwater channel despite county commissioners' refusal to fight its rejection by federal regulators.
Developer Gary Grubbs will likely file his own appeal of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' denial of a dredging permit that would have opened up the area to the Gulf of Mexico. The 4-mile channel, wide enough to accommodate luxury boats, would also serve an adjacent county park built on the site of a former lime rock mine.
"I'm pretty sure we'll appeal," said SunWest spokesman and project manager Bob Carpenter. "We don't think (the denial) is a valid position."
Last week, four of five county commissioners voted not to pursue an appeal on behalf of the county, which was a co-applicant with Grubbs for the permit. Commissioners expressed concerns about angering the corps, which is reviewing two other permit requests, a flooding fix for the Thousand Oaks neighborhood in Trinity, and the proposed Ridge Road Extension, which has dragged on for more than a decade.
"We need it more than a boat ramp," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who described the corps' haggling over Ridge Road as "slapping us around for 13 years."
Despite pleas from Commissioner Jack Mariano, whose district includes the development and who has been an ardent supporter, the other commissioners also put off for two weeks a decision to spend $132,000 already budgeted for an engineer to redesign the park and give cost estimates for construction. That vote came in response to Trinity residents who fear it will force staff to dip into money allocated for a sports park there.
"Let's see what the numbers are and go from there and make a good decision," Mariano said.
The proposed park and resort have been on the drawing board since 2006, when the county gained the land through a settlement agreement with the developer. The county would receive 21 acres for the park and $3 million for participating in a joint application for the dredging of the channel.
The resort plans called for 350 single-family homes, 2,150 condos and townhomes, a 250-room hotel with a conference center, an 18-hole championship golf course and 250,000 square feet of retail and 50,000 square feet of office space.
The park plans called for seven boat ramps, 250 boat and trailer parking spaces, a small beach area on the south side, a picnic area on the north side, and future commercial area along the east side of the lake. A wake board area has also been proposed.
The plans drew intense opposition from environmental groups, which expressed concerns over the loss of black bear corridor and damage to aquatic life. They focused their efforts on fighting the dredging permit. Opponents flooded the corps' district office with more than 9,000 individual comments and petitions with more than 40,000 signatures calling for denial.
The corps rejected the permit last month, saying the project was not in the public interest and that the county failed to show there were no practicable alternatives that would have been less damaging to the environment. It said it would have affected four acres of wetlands and nearly 29 acres of sea grass habitat.
Carpenter, a retired colonel who once led the corps' district office in Jacksonville, said the case is winnable, and the corps violated its own policy by allowing lower level officials to make the decision. If a project has the support of a governor, it's supposed to be sent up to the district staff to decide. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet upheld a Department of Environmental Protection permit in 2011.
"Environmentally it's the right thing to do," Mariano said, who says the county's proposed mitigation plan leaves the area with more sea grass than it had originally.
The project plays a large role in the county's efforts to redevelop the area from U.S. 19 to the coast, which is anything but upscale.
"If you go up and down U.S. 19, you wouldn't even know the coast is there unless someone tells you," said John Hagen, president of the Pasco Economic Development Council, a public-private partnership that worked with county planners to help guide future development and attract high-wage jobs. He said SunWest is part of a plan to eventually connect the county's scenic waterways starting with the rivers in southwest Pasco. The coast, one of five areas carved up for marketing purposes, is called the Harbors based on its potential as a haven for boaters, fishers and beach lovers.
"The SunWest mine will obviously be a link the chain," he said.
A report from the Urban Land Institute, brought in five years ago to help the county make itself more marketable to employers and tourists, cited SunWest as a key project in helping rebrand the coast.
"Distinct images of places give residents distinct experiences in their physical environment not otherwise appreciated," the report said. "The proposed SunWest (development), the reprocessing of the obsolete mine, is consistent with the image with a large lake- and water-oriented resort development."
County officials are optimistic that the project can still be built. The county already has the resources to begin building a basic beach park, interim County Administrator Michele Baker said. It also was ranked No. 1 by the advisory committee formed to prioritize projects to get money paid by BP as a penalty for the 2010 gulf oil spill.
"The concept for SunWest is tied into the coastal market area, no question," Baker said. She added that a parks master plan developed in 2000 cited the need for more boat access.
She thinks the channel permit will ultimately win approval, whether through appeal or whether county officials are able to redesign the plan to satisfy the corps.
"It's a potential delay. It's not a never," she said. "It's a matter of finding the right compromise."