CLEARWATER — Despite neighbors' and environmentalists' complaints, a divided Pinellas County Commission approved plans for an expansion of Clearwater Christian College on Tuesday.
The 4-2 vote for land use changes at the campus moves ahead an expansion that ultimately would destroy 4.5 acres of wetlands on Tampa Bay near the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
The commission vote didn't directly address the wetlands issue, which critics consider wrongheaded. State and federal authorities must decide whether to permit filling the wetlands — a decision the county made a part of its approval.
The board's vote happened with little debate by the commission. Commissioners Karen Seel and Susan Latvala voted against the move, and Commissioner Ken Welch was absent.
Because the Pinellas Planning Council already has approved the zoning changes, the commission would have needed a super majority, at least five votes, to deny the plan.
Seel, the commission chairwoman from Clearwater, said afterward that the caveat — that the county's approval is based on winning the environmental permits to actually destroy the wetlands — gave her "great pause."
Plus, she was bothered by the college trying to expand in a coastal high hazard zone — a criticism of opponents, too.
The sensitivity of the land is opponents' central complaint, particularly in a county that is mostly builtout. Environmentalists also objected because the college agreed to a "conservation easement" to protect the land in 1999. "It's only 4 acres of wetlands. But 4 acres is a considerable amount compared to what we have," said J.S. Hood, a critic from Belleair.
College attorney Katie Cole argued the area's boost from the college's expansion would overshadow the lost wetlands.
The private college, which is surrounded by mangrove swamp near the Courtney Campbell Parkway, originally wanted to fill in nearly 8 acres of wetlands. The college can house 600 students but wants to add another 150 dorm beds, parking and a chapel.
After critics complained, the college downsized the project — leading the Planning Council to approve it, said Commissioner John Morroni, a council member.
The Clearwater City Council gave its blessing to the plan this month after the college promised to improve the water circulation on 99 acres of stagnant wetlands on the school's property. The council will consider the project again Oct. 21.
"People oppose it," said neighbor Ingrid Anderson. "This benefits no one but the college."
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.