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Judge rules Pasco environmentalists can't argue T. Rowe Price project requires mitigation

LAND O'LAKES — Citizens for Sanity believes the wetland in a future parking lot of the proposed T. Rowe Price complex is big enough that developers can't destroy it without mitigation. But they won't get the chance to make that case.

An administrative judge ruled Wednesday that Citizens cannot present any evidence or testimony arguing the wetlands are larger than previously documented.

The ruling leaves the environmental group with little ammunition for the June 23 hearing to challenge the Southwest Florida Water Management District permit for the T. Rowe Price project, which is expected to bring 1,600 jobs to Pasco County over the next decade.

Citizens has argued that the wetland in question is larger than the 0.23 acres depicted on the official survey of the water district, known as Swiftmud. Developers are not required to mitigate for isolated wetlands less than half an acre in size.

But on Wednesday, Administrative Law Judge Donald Alexander granted a motion by landowner Peter Geraci to exclude any evidence or testimony from Citizens that the wetland may be bigger.

Alexander wrote in his order that the wetlands survey for Long Lake Ranch — the 1,000-acre property off State Road 54, of which a 94-acre parcel on the western end is the proposed future home to T. Rowe Price — 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 Determination is binding until May 2011 and cannot be re-litigated in this proceeding," he wrote.

Citizens member Clay Colson did not return a phone message Thursday. He has told the Times in previous interviews that if T. Rowe backs off plans to impact the wetland with the parking lot, he would drop the challenge.

Citizens had realized all along that their challenge to the wetlands survey was an uphill battle. The environmental group thought it had found a way around it after the developer asked to modify the survey to add 6 acres of wetlands on the eastern, commercial end of the property.

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.

Citizens may take a second route to challenge the permit, though. It has sent Swiftmud a notice of intent to sue in district court.

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

Judge rules Pasco environmentalists can't argue T. Rowe Price project requires mitigation 05/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 28, 2009 8:58pm]
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