NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco commissioners gave their final approval Tuesday to land use changes that will pave the way for the 2,500-home SunWest Harbourtowne in rural Aripeka, a decision environmental groups said they may fight in court.
County officials and representatives of the SunWest owners said the changes contain significant wildlife and environmental protections, including a commitment to a habitat management plan for black bears that answers criticisms posed by the state Department of Community Affairs.
"We still think it's going to be a first-class community," said SunWest planner Georgianne Ratliffe.
The 1,000-acre project includes land now used as a mining operation. In addition to the houses, SunWest Harbourtowne includes 250,000 square feet of retail space, a 250-room resort and 500 boat slips. The project would be completed in one phase and finished by 2020 under the terms of the development order.
Environmentalists say the changes continue to lack protections that are strong enough to enforce, particularly for the Florida black bears that travel through, and live in, a portion of the property and whose numbers are dwindling.
"This project is both environmentally and economically flawed and should not be built," said Mac Davis, a member of Gulf Coast Conservancy.
Lindsey Pickel, a lawyer for Gulf Coast Conservancy, said she would be speaking with her clients about whether to pursue legal action.
SunWest representatives and Pasco officials said the developer could have decided to keep mining parts of the land as well as pursue the roughly 1,100 homes and nearly 4 million square feet of retail that are already included in the land use plan — without the back and forth with county officials over the past four years.
"At the end of the day, the property owners have property rights," said Commissioner Michael Cox.
The Department of Community Affairs is expected to give its approval to the final plans, said county officials. The project still needs a state environmental resource permit.
Project manager Bob Carpenter said after the meeting that now the owners can begin marketing the property to a developer who wants to buy the land and build the project.
"The heavy lifting is done," he said.
Pasco County is still pursuing an environmental permit to dredge a channel for a new park near the project. SunWest is required to build the channel as part of a legal settlement.
The most talked-about provision? A management plan for the dwindling population of Florida black bears whose habitat would be damaged by the project.
Under the development order approved Tuesday, SunWest promises to set aside land for the bears on off-site property north of the proposed project.
The developer will have to submit a habitat management plan — outlining the location and cost of that land — before they can apply for a site development permit with the county.
The Department of Community Affairs had knocked an earlier version of the development order, saying it failed to provide specific details about the bear protections.
Now, the development order says the property owners must compensate for damaged bear habitat on an "acre for acre, type for type" basis.
Dave Sumpter, a wildlife expert who testified on behalf of Gulf Coast Conservancy, told commissioners they should work out the nitty-gritty details of the habitat plan before approving the land use changes.
"It's important to know now," he said. "It's important for them (the developers) to know what's going to be required for them."
An expert for Gulf Coast estimated that SunWest will disturb 700 acres of core bear habitat.
Carpenter said after the meeting the property owners didn't want to spend money on that level of analysis, especially when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says it does not have an acceptable guide on how to calculate mitigation for bears.
He said he expects the owners will be able to find enough land in the bear's corridor, which stretches north of Citrus County, to set aside.
"For the acreage we'll need, we don't think that's going to be a problem," he said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 869-6247.