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Environmental group Citizens for Sanity drops challenge to Pasco project

LAND O' LAKES — Less than a week after an administrative judge killed the central part of its case, environmental group Citizens for Sanity dropped its challenge to a water district permit for the proposed T. Rowe Price office project.

The decision comes as part of a settlement agreement that Citizens reached with Peter Geraci, who, with family members, own the 1,000-acre property off State Road 54 known as Long Lake Ranch.

As part of the agreement, signed Tuesday, Geraci agreed not to go after Citizens for legal fees.

Honey Rand, a spokeswoman for Amprop, which wants to develop a commercial project on the eastern end of the property, said the settlement is a direct result of the judge's ruling last week. She said her clients could now move ahead with their plans.

"The folks at Amprop are extremely happy to put all this behind them," she said.

County and state officials, who have put together a lucrative package of nearly $30-million in public incentives to attract the investment firm, had lambasted Citizens, saying the group was potentially holding up the T. Rowe Price office complex proposed for a 94-acre parcel on Long Lake Ranch.

The firm is supposed to bring to Pasco 1,600 jobs — including an initial 425 transfers from its Tampa office — over the next decade though the company has said that economic conditions have made their timing less certain.

On Wednesday, elected officials were elated by the word that the permit challenge appeared to be over.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, called it "good news" and County Commissioner Michael Cox said: "It took me about an hour to stop jumping up and down."

Cox said his understanding is that T. Rowe is scheduling a date to close on the property. "I think it's inevitable," he said.

Clay Colson, the Citizens member who has been at the forefront of the fight, had argued that a wetland to be impacted by the construction of a parking lot on the T. Rowe site is larger than depicted on the official wetland survey.

But last week Administrative Law Judge Donald Alexander granted a motion by Geraci to exclude any evidence or testimony from Citizens that the wetland may be bigger, leaving the group with little ammunition for a hearing scheduled this month.

Alexander wrote in his order that the wetlands survey for Long Lake Ranch became the official record in June 2006. Such surveys, called "formal determination of wetlands," are binding for five years unless physical changes alter the boundaries of the wetlands.

Alexander said Citizens showed no evidence that such changes had occurred.

The environmental group had previously thought it had found a way around it after Amprop asked to modify the survey to add 6 acres of wetlands on the eastern end of the property. Citizens member Dan Rametta had alerted the water district, known as Swiftmud, that the survey had left out those wetlands.

Colson had said that by modifying the survey, the district opened itself up to additional challenges. But the developer withdrew the proposed corrections in late April, leaving Citizens with nothing to fight but the original survey.

Colson declined to comment Wednesday beyond a written statement:

"The Southwest Florida Water Management District and the applicant insist that the delineation of (the wetland) is true and correct, so there is no reason for them not to defend that position in a court of law instead of working to eliminate the evidence to the contrary."

Swiftmud spokeswoman Robyn Felix had not heard about the settlement agreement until late Wednesday afternoon. She said all the district permits issued for the property were based on the updated survey, even if it was later withdrawn.

"All of the information we based the T. Rowe Price permit on is accurate and correct," she said. "We're pleased that the parties appear to have reached a settlement."

Colson has also threatened to take Swiftmud to circuit court over its decision to grant the permit. Rand, the Amprop spokeswoman, said Colson's notice to sue Swiftmud does not affect her client's plans.

She questioned whether he would move ahead with that plan, saying he'd owe a lot of money in legal fees if he lost.

"As far as we're concerned, we're done," she said. "We're ready to move forward."

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

Environmental group Citizens for Sanity drops challenge to Pasco project 06/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 9:03pm]

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