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T. Rowe Price project in Pasco hits bump over water concerns

LAND O'LAKES — A plan to lure investment firm T. Rowe Price and more than 1,600 jobs to central Pasco has hit a snag: An environmental group has challenged the water district permit for the proposed office complex on State Road 54.

The group, Citizens for Sanity.com, says that T. Rowe Price would destroy "without compensation or mitigation" at least one wetland area on the proposed 94-acre campus and has also failed to explain how, during a severe drought, it plans to provide water to the development.

T. Rowe Price's engineering firm had said it does not need to mitigate because the wetland area in question is less than a quarter of an acre and does not support threatened species.

The water district, known as Swiftmud, approved the permit on Feb. 13. The case now goes to the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings.

A hearing could be at least three months away, a prospect hat doesn't sit well with officials who hoped for smooth sailing for the project, which has been promised more than $26 million in financial incentives.

"Obviously, we're not happy," said County Commissioner Michael Cox. "We're very confident we'll get past it. … The county has got a lot at stake here."

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he has offered Swiftmud his support in fighting the Citizens for Sanity appeal.

"My argument would be, they got the permit. It provides 1,600 jobs," Weatherford said. "You tell me what's sane."

Though T. Rowe Price has not committed to relocating to Pasco, the company has said it wants to move 435 jobs from Tampa, then add 1,215 over a decade. The average salary would be more than $47,000.

T. Rowe Price spokesman Brian Lewbart declined to say how the potential delay affected the company's plans. "We're still waiting for everything to play out," he said.

He said that if the project does go through, however, T. Rowe Price will end up enhancing the habitat. "We do take a very environmentally friendly approach to the site," he said.

The 94-acre site for the T. Rowe Price office campus — which would consist of three 150,000-square-foot office buildings plus three parking garages — is on the western end of the Long Lake Ranch property.

The larger, eastern portion of the ranch property is slated for commercial development.

Citizens for Sanity member Dan Rametta has land near the commercial end.

Earlier, he found problems with the permit plans for that larger section. Rametta e-mailed Swiftmud officials, saying a creek flowing from the north side of State Road 54 could flood his home if its flow were interrupted by activity on Long Lake Ranch.

He also said in that e-mail he'd found "major errors" related to wetland mapping in the application for the eastern piece of the ranch property. He said, for instance, that a wetland area had been incorrectly labeled as "improved pasture."

Not quite two weeks later, a Swiftmud official wrote him back, saying that the developer's engineering firm had agreed to redo the wetland delineation.

Last month, in an interview with the Times, Rametta said he didn't have problems with the T. Rowe Price portion of the property. "It looks all on the up and up," Rametta said.

He did question, however, the logic of adding more water users and filling wetlands when the region is in a major drought.

"It just raised a few red flags," Rametta said. "What's going to happen? Who knows? … The net result is all these wetlands disappear. Now we have a critical water shortage. Gee, does that surprise anybody?"

Rametta did not return a phone message Wednesday.

Mary Jane Stanley, president of the Pasco Economic Development Council, said Wednesday that her office, the developer and others are reviewing the group's challenge. "This is just part of the process, it's part of what happens. We're just trying to be optimistic."

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

T. Rowe Price project in Pasco hits bump over water concerns 03/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 11, 2009 8:23pm]
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