The owners of some swampy property at the southern end of the Sunshine Skyway bridge want to build a development there that would include a hotel, offices, shops, homes, a marine mammal rescue center and "Tahiti-style overwater bungalows."
But there's a catch.
To make it work, the landowners say, they need state officials to agree to a deal. The developers say they would give the state nearly 998 acres if the state will hand over just 77 acres.
The state's land — which is part of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve — borders the bridge's southern tollbooth, which would make it an easy drive for the thousands of cars that someday would visit the resort.
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.
"The whole thing hinges on the land swap," said Honey Rand, spokeswoman for the development, which was once called Skyway Resort but now is going by the name Skyway Preserve. "Given what the owners are willing to give up (the swap) is a pretty substantial gain for the state of Florida."
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 will create nearly 1,500 temporary and 700 permanent jobs.
But if the state says no, Rand said, "then they'll have to back up and see what alternatives exist."
State Department of Environmental Protection officials say they have made no decision on the swap proposed by the owners, who include Tampa land-use lawyer David Smolker and Pasco County native plant nursery owner Brightman Logan.
The proposal they submitted to the DEP is fuzzy about what all this might cost, as well as how much dredge-and-fill work would be required to put buildings and roads on what's now mangrove hammocks and sea grass beds. But the project is already drawing opposition from some local environmental activists.
"It's an outrageously bad deal for the citizens of Florida that's bad for the environment and bad for Tampa Bay," said Mariella Smith of the Sierra Club.
And Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon Florida, said she was worried about the destruction of shallow-bottom habitat in the bay and the disruption of the wading bird colonies in the area.
"I think it's going to cause the same kinds of impacts that we see on the northern side of the bridge," she said, referring to the dredge-and-fill development in Tierra Verde that wiped out a lush natural shoreline. "We'll never get that habitat back."
Based on the artists' renderings in the proposal, Suzanne Cooper of the Agency on Bay Management said, this is a project unlike any other to hit the region in years.
"I haven't seen anything like this, where it would be over the water," she said. "There's a lot of pressure right now to encourage development, but we need to look out for any unintended consequences."
• • •
Embassy Blue, a nonprofit organization, wants to build what it calls "the world's largest and only long-term-care facility for dolphins, whales, manatees and sea turtles" on the site.
Embassy Blue is an arm of Ocean Embassy, which was part of a controversial project that captured wild dolphins in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific and sold them to a hotel in Dubai, more than 7,000 miles away.
It was also involved in a proposed resort in Panama that planned to capture wild dolphins for display. That resort was never built.
"It's just a hole in the ground," said Naomi Rose of the Humane Society, which spearheaded the opposition to the company's Panama dolphin capture plans.
Embassy Blue's website says the Skyway center it has proposed would fill a need in this region for long-term facilities to care for injured and sick dolphins and other marine mammals.
However, federal fisheries officials say they are aware of no such need, and Nadine Slimak of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota said existing facilities are considered adequate for the demand seen.
Embassy Blue contends on its website that "all development permits" for its Skyway site have been approved and all that's lacking is financing, for which it has contacted various oil companies. In an interview, Embassy Blue co-founder Mark Simmons said that actually meant the builders of Skyway Preserve had already obtained "the most sensitive permits on the state level."
But Rand said that's not true: "We haven't applied for or gotten any permits yet."
Word about the land swap proposal has just begun to filter into the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. Manatee County officials say the landowners applied for a change in the county comprehensive plan two years ago, but the application was deemed incomplete without the land swap. The swap proposal was sent to state officials just four months ago.
Embassy Blue gave federal officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in St. Petersburg a slide show of what it hopes to build, including a 19-million-gallon tank and a teaching hospital. But so far the group hasn't submitted an application, according to NOAA spokeswoman Allison Garrett.
• • •
If the state environmental agency had its way, Florida would already own all the land around the southern end of the Skyway. That property — including the land now proposed for a swap with the preserve — is on the list of properties the state had planned to buy using money from Florida Forever, the popular program that the Legislature has not funded for two years.
The agency's listing for the property notes that it is "particularly significant for the protection it offers to bird rookeries … and to the adjacent Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, with its sea grass beds used heavily by manatees, its nursery areas for fish and invertebrates, and its important fishery."
Because Smolker, Logan and the other landowners are willing to swap 998 acres of that property for some of the land the state had already preserved, they contend that would more than make up for any environmental damage caused by the dredge-and-fill work and other construction activity their development would require.
The proposal they sent the DEP suggests they should be granted credits that they could then sell for thousands of dollars each to other developers who destroy wetlands or sea grass beds elsewhere in the region.
"The state needs to be very careful about what they give up in return for what they're getting," said Cooper of the Agency on Bay Management.
"Most of (the 998 acres) couldn't be permitted for development anyway under current law."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]