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Citizens for Sanity files new challenge to T. Rowe Price project in Pasco

LAND O'LAKES — An environmental group on Monday filed a second challenge to the proposed T. Rowe Price project, arguing this time that the developer has underestimated the size of wetlands on the site.

By all accounts, Citizens for Sanity's latest challenge to the Southwest Florida Water Management District will create more delays for the project, which county and state officials have been trying to fast-track to completion. The project comes with a promise to move 435 jobs from Tampa and add 1,215 jobs over a decade.

Citizens member Clay Colson, who filed the petition challenging the accuracy of the project's wetland delineation, said he and others are trying only to stop the proposed destruction of one small wetland close to State Road 54.

"You know how easy it is for the project to go forward?" he said. "Leave the wetland alone."

The developer's engineering firm found that wetland is less than a quarter of an acre. Swiftmud does not require mitigation for isolated wetlands under half an acre.

A University of South Florida geology professor, Mark Rains, who is volunteering his services to Citizens, has visited the site. He said his informal look at the wetland in question suggests it's larger — though he's not sure how much larger — than a quarter acre. He based that observation on the types of soils and the presence of young cypress knees outside the boundary lines.

"My guess is they undersized it, for sure," he said.

Supporters of the project say Colson and other members of the group are just trying to hold up the much-anticipated T. Rowe Price project to make their voices heard on other unrelated development issues in the county.

"It's just a sad state of affairs," said Commissioner Michael Cox. "Anybody who pays attention in Pasco County knows we need to bring these jobs here."

He added that he believed the wetlands information to be accurate. "More importantly, the agency (Swiftmud) charged with making sure the laws are enforced and the wetlands are protected (is) okay with it, too," he said.

Last month, Citizens filed a petition challenging Swiftmud's approval of an environmental resource permit on the proposed project. That challenge is scheduled to go to an administrative hearing on May 6.

Colson said he hopes the latest challenge can be consolidated with the earlier one, though he said both sides will need much more than a month to prepare their cases.

No agreement

In recent weeks, Citizens for Sanity has been in negotiations with lawyers for Amprop, the developer on the project. Honey Rand, a well-connected public relations consultant now working on Amprop's behalf, said Monday that Colson had given a "verbal agreement" to a proposed settlement.

Rand said Colson agreed to drop the challenge if Amprop would "relocate" the isolated wetland and put green, low-flow toilets in all the buildings. Then last Friday, she said, Citizens "changed their mind."

"Everybody thought they had an agreement," she said. "All it is is delay, delay, delay."

Colson disputed that he had agreed to anything, and said those two points raised by Rand would not have been enough for the group to drop its challenge.

But he added the group no longer felt it needed to negotiate.

Uncharted territory

Initially, he said, Citizens did not know whether it could challenge the accuracy of the site's wetland delineation, which was prepared in 2006. Swiftmud had certified that delineation as the official survey of the property, which essentially means it's held up as nearly indisputable, said Rains, the professor.

But Colson said his group believes it found an opportunity.

This year, Citizens for Sanity member Dan Rametta discovered some errors in the wetland delineation for the eastern end of the property, which is slated for commercial development.

Swiftmud officials agreed and corrected the mistakes. Colson said that by modifying the survey, the district opened itself up to additional challenges on the wetland mapping. He acknowledged that this tactic is "unchartered territory."

It's unclear what kind of legal guidance the group will have to lead it through such territory. Colson filed Monday's petition on his own, without the help of St. Petersburg lawyer John R. Thomas, who prepared Citizens' first challenge.

Monday afternoon, Colson said that the group and Thomas had split ways over "irreconcilable differences" and that the group needed to find a new lawyer for the forthcoming hearing, something that might also cause a delay.

Thomas told the Times that while he did not represent the group on the latest filing, he may still represent it at the hearing on the first challenge. He would not say whether the group is paying him.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Citizens for Sanity files new challenge to T. Rowe Price project in Pasco 04/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 13, 2009 9:22pm]

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