BROOKSVILLE — Water district officials Tuesday approved a controversial land swap that gives SunWest Harbourtowne developers 90 acres of bear habitat in exchange for a nearby 400-acre parcel.
The unanimous decision by the Southwest Florida Water Management District's board marked an important benchmark for developers, who consider the deal a key piece of their effort to gain state approval on their proposed 2,400-home golf course-and-marina project on mine property in northwest Pasco County.
"We've worked hard to ensure that SunWest sets very high standards in every way," said Bob Carpenter, project manager for SunWest Harbourtowne. "This land swap is just one more way that we show that."
But environmental groups, who say the land swap sets a troubling precedent when it comes to the handling of public conservation lands, said they would consider their legal options to fight the decision.
"This is not over," said Joe Murphy of the Gulf Restoration Network.
As part of the deal, SunWest also agreed to donate 849 acres of coastal property with limited development potential. The land swap will go through only if the state approves SunWest's development of regional impact application. Murphy said the environmental groups will also fight the project on that front.
Swiftmud bought the 90 acres in 2001 with Florida Forever conservation funds. The land is adjacent to existing public lands that form a corridor for black bears, a threatened species, to roam from Citrus County through Hernando and into Pasco.
The district's assumption at the time? Pasco County would end up with the land directly to the south once mining operations ceased. But legal complications prevented that from happening, and Swiftmud says it had to revise its long-term plans.
If they held onto the 90 acres, Swiftmud officials said, the parcel would be isolated amid the new development, making it difficult to manage.
Critics said taking away the 90 acres from the bear corridor could lead to the demise of the remaining two dozen or so bears from the Chassahowitzka region.
On Tuesday, Kipp Frohlich of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has not taken a stand on the swap, told the board that the bears would suffer from any development in that area — with or without the land swap.
"There is a net loss to bear habitat no matter how we arrange it," he said.
More recently, opponents have also zeroed in on legal objections to the swap.
In a four-page letter to the board, eight environmental groups argue that Swiftmud failed to meet the legal threshold for disposing of conservation land. The letter says that the intent of a state law implemented in 1999 requires Swiftmud to show that the 90 acres no longer has any conservation value, something the district has not done.
Charles Lee, of Audubon of Florida, called the move "fatally flawed."
Swiftmud lawyer Bill Bilenky said the opponents of the deal were reading too much into the law. He said Swiftmud did not have to meet such a standard to make its decision.
The 13-member governing board of Swiftmud had been scheduled to vote on the matter last month. But they put off their decision after critics raised a number of questions.
By Tuesday, board members said they believed the land swap represented the best plan.
"It's clear to me it'd be silly not to support this swap," said Chairman Neil Combee, who was initially opposed to the deal.
Murphy, of the Gulf Restoration Network, said the board had reached the wrong conclusion for the wrong reasons.
"Once the district dug themselves in this hole, they had to find a way to get out of it," he said. "They erred on the side of not conflicting with their staff."
Jodie Tillman can be reached by firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.