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Pasco commissioner accuses marine agency of impeding SunWest channel plans

Frustrated by a drawn-out permitting process for a planned 85-foot-wide channel at the SunWest property in Aripeka, Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano plans to directly appeal to top Army Corps of Engineers officials in Jacksonville.

Mariano, long a chief supporter of the project, said he is mostly upset with recent opposition to the project from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

That agency on Nov. 28 sent a letter criticizing SunWest's plan to mitigate the damage the 4-mile long expanded channel would cause to 28 acres of seagrass. The letter said the mitigation efforts would have a "fairly high chance of failure."

Mariano accused Marine Fisheries officials of trying to "submarine" the project. In May, the agency released a letter opposing the project shortly before a hearing at the Florida Cabinet. Now, he said, this letter "comes up at the last minute, too." Both applicants and environmental groups expect the Army Corps is nearing a decision on the permit.

"If they had factual stuff, I'm all for it," he said. "But not only is this not factual, it's inflammatory."

The expanded channel would be shared by boaters launching from a future county park and residents of a proposed 2,500-home luxury development called SunWest Harbourtowne. The county park would provide access to the gulf via seven boat ramps and 250 boat parking spaces.

In a Friday letter to Army Corps Col. Alfred Pantano, Mariano laments "classic government bureaucracy stopping a great project." He accuses Marine Fisheries of "making an obvious attempt to slow or stop the project" and said it tried to "sabotage" the project with the May letter.

"That the Corps of Engineers would hold up forward progress as a result is patently unfair," he wrote.

A Marine Fisheries spokeswoman said the agency had no response to Mariano's letter and stood by its earlier letters to the Army Corps.

One of the agency's key complaints deals with the mitigation plan. To make up for the seagrass that would be destroyed by the channel, the developer proposes restoring an expanse of seagrass off the coast in Anclote. Decades ago, a 15-acre hole was created to provide fill dirt for the Anclote power plant. The developer proposes filling that underwater crater with 100,000 cubic yards of fill from the SunWest dredge to create just the right depth to encourage seagrass to grow. But Marine Fisheries says the plan is an "extremely risky option" and the county and developer did not provide a backup plan.

"Mother nature wanted (seagrass) there before," said Bob Carpenter, the SunWest project engineer. "We messed it up 50 years ago or 40 years ago when we built that plant. Now we're going to put it back. Why wouldn't it grow?"

The agency also suggested that the Corps order a "habitat equivalency analysis," which was developed in 1992 to measure damage to oiled wetlands.

Mariano's letter says the agency should have requested that study "years ago, before the applicant expended significant resources" on earlier studies. Mariano is also upset that the latest review comes from a Marine Fisheries seagrass expert based in North Carolina. In response to criticism of the plan to encourage seagrass growth near Anclote, Mariano writes: "He is clearly not familiar with either the proposed mitigation projects, their adjacency to lush seagrass beds, nor the behavior of seagrass in Pasco County."

Mariano participated in a conference call last week with Carpenter and officials from the Corps' Tampa office. During the call, Mariano said he got the impression that officials were giving credence to the Marine Fisheries letter and were likely to deny the permit or let it sit for years like the infamous Ridge Road extension.

"We just didn't like their inclination," he said. So, he plans to plead his case to top Corps officials in Jacksonville. They have a meeting set for Jan. 3.

Other environmental groups have been trying to spur opposition to the project. Two online petition forms have sent hundreds of opposition letters to Corps officials. A Nov. 30 letter from the Gulf Restoration Network asks for an environmental impact study to assuage concerns about "this extremely destructive project."

"Really there's not much coastline like this in the United States," said Cathy Harrelson, a Florida organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network. She pointed to the anglers who run charters in Fillman Bayou. "There's such a loss of economic value when you destroy this extremely valuable coastline.”

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco commissioner accuses marine agency of impeding SunWest channel plans 12/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2011 8:13pm]

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