CLEARWATER — Clearwater Christian College has reached a compromise with local government officials, scaling back its controversial plan to fill in some wetlands on its campus to make way for dorms and ballfields.
That compromise led the Pinellas Planning Council to approve zoning changes related to the project Wednesday afternoon. But the plan must still be approved by government agencies such as the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The small private college, which is surrounded by mangrove swamp just north of the Courtney Campbell Parkway, had originally been seeking permission to fill in nearly 8 acres of wetlands.
It has now reduced that number, however, to nearly 3 acres of wetlands at the southeast corner of its property. The college also has agreed not to build athletic fields on the northern edge of its campus near a bald eagle nest situated in the adjacent Cooper's Point wilderness area.
"It is something the college can and will live with," said Clearwater Christian's attorney, Ed Armstrong. "It's not everything they hoped for, but it's realistic."
Still, local environmentalists remain vocally opposed to the college's plan, and the fight is far from over.
The college, which was founded in 1966, can house 600 students. It wants to add another 150 dorm beds as well as parking and a chapel. Now, students attend religious services every morning in the school's gymnasium, setting up and then taking down hundreds of chairs.
"We want to have our own chapel-fine arts building. We view this as intrinsic to our mission," said college vice president Randy Livingston.
David Healey, executive director of the Pinellas Planning Council, concluded that the college's original plan did not comply with Pinellas County's land use rules.
That led to Wednesday's compromise. Clearwater Christian is now seeking to fill in 2.6 acres of wetlands, some of which it describes as "poor quality" wetlands surrounding an old borrow pit.
In exchange, the college says it would restore another 99 acres of wetlands on its property, and also modernize its stormwater drainage system, which currently drains directly into Old Tampa Bay.
Still, eight people spoke against this proposal at Wednesday's Planning Council hearing. They're opposed to the destruction of any wetlands.
The eagle nest
Mathew Poling, a local University of Florida junior who previously fought to keep Pinellas County from building water treatment plants in the Brooker Creek Preserve, drove down from UF to speak at the hearing.
He said he'd found that Clearwater Christian College had previously granted the Southwest Florida Water Management District a "conservation easement" on its property that forbids development on its wetlands.
The college's lawyer, Armstrong, said the college has been discussing that matter with Swiftmud. "That's part of the regulatory process we're going through," he said.
Barbara Walker of the Clearwater Audubon Society complained that the college has put up a portable classroom within sight of the bald eagle nest. "I've seen fresh digging and heavy equipment near the nest," she said.
Armstrong responded that the classroom was outside a buffer zone that Florida wildlife officials had established to protect the eagle nest.
The Pinellas Planning Council — an advisory board of elected officials that reviews development decisions — voted to approve the zoning changes that the college wanted. The Planning Council's members said agencies like Swiftmud and the Army Corps will have to review the environmental aspects of the plan.
The next steps: The plan is to go before the Pinellas County Commission for approval on Oct. 12, then back to the Clearwater City Council on Oct. 21.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.