BROOKSVILLE — The planned SunWest Harbourtowne development in Pasco's far northwest corner got a boost Thursday with the approval of a controversial land swap that conservation groups say could lead to the extinction of the black bears in the Chassahowitzka wilderness.
The Coastal Rivers Basin Board approved the exchange of nearly 90 acres owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District for 396 acres owned by the developer. The developer also agreed to give the district another 849 coastal acres with a limited development potential.
The SunWest proposal includes 2,400 homes spread over 2,263 acres, some of which is being actively mined. Nestled just south of the Hernando County line, the project also includes a marina, a golf course, a hotel, a convention center and retail stores.
The basin board's recommendation now goes to Swiftmud's governing board for a decision on Feb. 24. The transactions will not close until the SunWest developers secure their development of regional impact approvals from the state Department of Community Affairs and the Pasco County Commission.
The Gulf Coast Conservancy, the Gulf Restoration Network and Defenders of Wildlife all opposed the land swap. The trade "is a violation of statute and a violation of public trust,'' argued attorney Lindsey Pickel, representing the conservancy.
To make a trade, she said, the property acquired must have equal conservation value to the property given away.
The 90 acres is adjacent to the existing public lands that form a corridor for black bears, a threatened species, to roam from Citrus County through Hernando and into Pasco. The 396 acres that Swiftmud would get is not adjacent to the corridor.
Taking the 90 acres away from the corridor could spell the demise of the remaining two dozen or so bears from the Chassahowitzka region, argued McMillan "Mac" Davis, a trustee with the Gulf Coast Conservancy.
When there is a doubt about whether the action would hurt or help, Davis said, Swiftmud should "err on the side of more protection.''
Swapping public lands "is bad public policy,'' said Joe Murphy of the Gulf Restoration Network. "It's bad for the bears and it's not in the interest of the taxpayers who funded the purchase of the property.''
The public trust also would be violated, Pickel said, because the 90 acres were bought through the Florida Forever program for conservation including conservation of bear habitat.
Swiftmud officials agreed that the 90 acres known as the Wooley property was bought for conservation purposes. When that happened, Swiftmud thought the adjacent mine land was going to become public property.
But legal complications between the mine owners and Pasco County kept that from happening.
When Swiftmud officials learned that the SunWest development was planned for the site, they realized their long-term plans for the area were going to have to change.
They began negotiating some way to exchange properties in a way that would provide a broader environmental benefit. Swapping these properties would meet that goal, Swiftmud's land resources director Eric Sutton told the Basin Board.
Calling it potentially "a real can of worms,'' Basin Board member Sam Lyons questioned the wisdom of placing a golf course on the 90 acres since one of the agency's goals was to preserve water quality.
He also expressed concern that small waterways on the site would be opened up to the gulf to provide water access, again risking water quality issues and saltwater intrusion problems.
"I don't want to leave a legacy as a board member who enabled this to happen. If we don't promote this, if we don't recommend this, then this might be over and done with right now,'' said Lyons, the only board member who voted against the swap.
"This could be the first step of opening up this whole area to the kind of development we've been trying to avoid along the coastal areas,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.