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Clearwater Christian College's expansion into wetlands to be limited

CLEARWATER — Residents frustrated with Clearwater Christian College's plans to pave over wetlands earned a small victory last month with a settlement that helps ensure marshland nearby will be spared.

Leaders of the college, which is located off the west end of the Courtney Campbell Parkway, will still push to build a chapel, dorms and a parking lot on about 4.5 acres of marshy wetlands, near live mangroves and a nest of bald eagles.

But a legal settlement between the college and three nearby condo owners will prevent the college from building out even farther, keeping the wetlands in their "natural condition forever."

Clearwater attorney Katie Cole said the college had no plans to expand into the more than 85 acres of wetlands on Cooper's Point, a peninsula that juts into Old Tampa Bay. Other settlement provisions, like wetland buffers and nest protection, also were in the college's designs, she said.

"We want to be the best stewards of that land as possible," Cole said.

But without the agreement, the college could amend its plans with little resistance, said Mathew Poling, an environmental activist and recent graduate of the University of Florida. The college would need the petitioners' approval to expand farther, providing the surrounding wetlands a second layer of protection.

"There's no way the college or anyone can build on that," Poling said. "We didn't have that guarantee before the settlement."

The college's building plan must still wind through a dozen state and federal agencies, a permitting process that could take years.

Founded in 1966, the private college housing 600 students submitted expansion plans to the city last year. It wanted dorms for 150 more students, a new baseball and soccer field, and a building for chapel services and fine arts.

In August the City Council approved the college's plan to fill in nearly 8 acres of swamp, 2 of which were dominated by invasive Brazilian peppers, college consultants said.

More than a dozen residents said the wetland destruction would be devastating for the mangroves and wading birds that thrive on Cooper's Point.

College leaders said they would make up for the lost wetlands by dredging and widening old mosquito ditches crossing 99 acres of swamp on school property. The cleared channels, they said, would help improve flow and water quality in Cooper's Bayou and Old Tampa Bay.

"Restoring" the ditches would cost about $1.7 million, they said. But the work could help them sell an estimated $3.5 million in credits from a mitigation bank to developers seeking to pave over wetlands off the Tampa Bay basin. Members of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society called the proposal a shell game.

In September, after the Pinellas Planning Council balked at the plan, the college reduced its expansion to 4.5 acres of wetlands and axed plans to build fields near the eagles' nest. The city and county okayed the change in October.

In November, residents Jinene Harvey, Christiane Perreve and Kathleen Knapp of the nearby Harbour Towne Condominiums challenged the plan in court. The settlement was reached April 26.

Ingrid Anderson, who lived at Harbour Towne for 25 years, said she thought the settlement was a good step. But she said she was "still appalled" that the process to destroy the wetlands continued.

"I can understand they want to grow," she said of the college. "But they could do it anywhere else."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Clearwater Christian College's expansion into wetlands to be limited 05/11/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 7:44pm]
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