ARIPEKA — State environmental officials are signaling they may shoot down a channel project that would serve a county park and the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne development.
A preliminary evaluation by the Department of Environmental Protection found problems with the size of the channel and the impact on wetlands as it is proposed.
Environmental Administrator William Vorstadt highlighted the concerns in a four-page letter to Pasco County and SunWest Acquisition Corp., which are joint applicants on the channel project, to ask for more details but also to let them know "the project may not be recommended for approval."
"We are sending you this letter at this stage of the process to allow you to fully assess the further commitment of financial resources for permit issuance," he wrote in the May 19 letter.
The channel project, which would provide access to the Gulf of Mexico, has been widely seen as an important part of SunWest's plans for its 2,500 upscale homes, golf course and marina. The development has plans for 500 boat slips that would accommodate larger vessels than those that would utilize the proposed county boat ramp, according to the DEP letter.
Last year, SunWest project manager Bob Carpenter, in an e-mail to County Administrator John Gallagher, blasted a county biologist for delaying the DEP permit on the canal dredging project.
But on Wednesday, Carpenter and others with SunWest downplayed the significance of the canal to their project. Carpenter said the project could make do with an existing canal, though they would much prefer the new one and believe it would be better for the public.
"We can launch boats in that channel right now," he said. "What it is essential to is the county park.
"It certainly would be nice, be safer. But it's not a showstopper for us."
Both SunWest and county officials said they were confident they could respond to the questions raised by the DEP.
"Usually, these letters are common," Gallagher said. "We're just going to have to work through it."
The entire project up for DEP review includes dredging more than 13 acres for the new channel; filling in about four acres of wetlands for parking and less than an acre of wetlands for a sand beach; and dredging uplands for a travel lift associated with the Harbourtowne Marina. The project also includes the construction of a seven-lane boat ramp, fishing pier and manatee observation tower.
SunWest officials were on hand Wednesday as county commissioners gave their blessing to land-use changes associated with the SunWest project. The project is still working its way through the development of regional impact process.
A handful of critics of the SunWest project were also on hand.
Mac Davis, an Aripeka resident, said he didn't see the DEP letter as a victory for his side, though he grinned when told SunWest officials were not too worked up about it.
"They're on record as saying it's absolutely critical to their development," he said of the channel. But the letter is "just a courtesy heads-up to Pasco County."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.