CLEARWATER — Despite objections by environmentalists, a city development board on Tuesday approved a plan by Clearwater Christian College to clear about 8 acres of mangrove swamp to build dorms and athletic fields.
Environmental activists oppose the project because it would destroy wetlands. Also, they say the construction could disturb a bald eagle nest in the Cooper's Point wilderness area next to the campus.
However, members of Clearwater's Community Development Board were won over by the college's plan to mitigate the damage by restoring another 99 acres of wetlands that are on the school's property north of the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
Clearwater Christian plans to cut channels in the swamp and install a pipe underneath a road to improve tidal flow between the wetlands and Old Tampa Bay. The college's hired experts testified Tuesday that this will improve water quality and wildlife habitat in the swamp, which could provide the bald eagles there with more game to eat. The school also plans to tear out a sizable number of Brazilian peppers, classified as a non-native invasive species.
The development board voted 6-1 to approve the project, with member Norma Carlough the only one opposed.
Tuesday's hearing was the first step in a lengthy process. The Clearwater City Council will take up the issue Thursday night, and the college will have to get several state and federal permits before it can expand its campus.
The private college, which was founded in the 1960s, is surrounded by mangrove swamp. It can house 600 students, and it wants to add another 150 dorm beds as well as baseball and soccer fields, college vice president Randy Livingston said.
Some of the college's neighbors and members of the Clearwater Audubon Society came to Tuesday's hearing to object to the plan to fill in 7.8 acres of wetlands.
"The value of these wetlands is undisputed," said Ingrid Anderson, representing the nearby Harbour Towne Condominiums.
"Just because they've proposed a mitigation plan does not require you to accept this and go forward," she told the board. "You can stop this now."
Clearwater Christian's environmental consultants described the swamp surrounding the college as a degraded, stagnant, unhealthy ecosystem. It needs help, they said.
But Audubon members said there are plenty of live mangroves and wading birds in the swamp. They're also concerned about a pair of bald eagles that they say are nesting only 9 feet from the college's property line.
"This pair of eagles, they have been disturbed in the past," said Barbara Walker, a volunteer eagle watcher for Audubon. "They've been chased around a little bit, into and out of cell towers."
The college downplayed the potential impact on the eagles.
City engineers and planning officials reviewed Clearwater Christian's proposal and sided with the college. They also noted that government agencies such as the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be reviewing the college's environmental mitigation plans.
"What you're looking at is 7.8 acres of wetlands impact — which are a lot, I agree," said Ed Chesney, Clearwater's environmental manager. "But the benefits for the other 100 acres outweigh that."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.