Neighbors of Big Bayou received an unexpected victory last week when a judge denied a developer's request for new boat slips.
An administrative hearing judge said Prospect-Marathon Coquina should not be able to add new boat slips connected to a condominium development off Coquina Key.
"I never thought we had a chance," said Bonnie Agan, one of the Driftwood residents who fought the more than 60 new slips proposed for Waterside at Coquina Key North, a condominium conversion of an apartment complex on the island. "It's pretty exciting, but I'm afraid to celebrate because I feel we may have aroused the beast."
Last year the developer received permission from the state Cabinet to add the 60 boat slips to 30 already there. Activists from Driftwood and other neighborhoods surrounding Big Bayou said the slips would cause environmental harm and that the Cabinet's decision was flawed.
After a January hearing, administrative law judge Bram D.E. Canter issued a ruling March 21 that recommended the state deny a permit for the slips and refuse a modification for the submerged land lease needed to build them.
The neighbors' attorney, Dan Schuh, had argued that the developer had broken the law by separating the boat slip sales from the condominiums and that Big Bayou water quality required greater preservation. The developer later agreed to legally connect the slips and the condos as a condition of its permit to build the slips.
Schuh said the law required the developer to do studies to show that the project would not harm the environment, but no studies were done. He provided environmental experts' depositions on the value of the bayou.
Prospect-Marathon has said it complied with legal requirements to get permits for the boat slips. In a statement, the developer said it is "taking the appropriate next steps in this legal process."
The decision took longer than expected, which Schuh had told neighbors was a positive sign. He said he doesn't expect the developer to appeal but added there are more steps left in the process.
The issue now goes back to the state and the Cabinet for reconsideration.
The judge's order discussed the "public interest" requirement of the lease modification.
Prospect-Marathon had to pay the nominal lease fee as well as $300,000 for a boat ramp in Palm Harbor to satisfy that requirement, but the judge noted that building a new boat ramp would likely increase environmental harm, not benefit the public.
Paul Swider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 892-2271.