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Brian Blair denies having wetlands conversation with environmental official

TAMPA — Rick Garrity and Brian Blair know each other well.

Garrity is the executive director of Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission. Blair is a former county commissioner who served a stint as EPC chairman that included the summer of 2007, when a cadre of developers, led by one of Blair's campaign fundraisers, sought to eliminate the agency's wetlands protection program.

Blair lost his re-election campaign in November, and the two hadn't spoken in months. So if the two talked by phone last month, it would have been memorable, right?

It was for Garrity.

He recalls Blair contacting him March 26 to ask about wetlands mitigation on 79 acres across from the Hard Rock Casino. They talked for 10 minutes, he says.

Blair, in an April 10 interview with the Times, said that conversation didn't take place.

"No," Blair replied. "I don't know what you're talking about."

He hung up on a reporter and didn't return later phone calls.

What's the former commissioner up to?

Garrity has a memo slip showing Blair called March 26 at 3:46 p.m., triggering a return call from Garrity. That message was written by his assistant, Joyce Moore. She sent Garrity an e-mail seven minutes later.

Both messages say Blair called about getting a report on the wetlands hybrid plan, which explains steps to develop property without violating environmental rules. The notes include the identification number of the land Blair wanted to discuss.

"Well, I talked with him, that's all I can say," Garrity said. "He said he never talked to me? Okay."

Garrity said the former commissioner wondered how to fit 100 parking spaces on the land without violating county rules on wetlands protection.

"He mentioned that someone needed some extra parking spaces and that they had noticed some land across from Hillsborough that had uplands and wetlands," Garrity said. "I'm not sure if he mentioned the casino or not. He asked if I knew anything about the property."

There's nothing wrong with a former commissioner calling to get information or asking staff to do something for a friend. A county ordinance requires commissioners wait two years before they can get paid to lobby the county, but Garrity said Blair was only asking questions.

Blair doesn't own the land in question. A Miami company, KIS, LLC, does. "I've never heard of this gentleman," said its manager, Gladys Patino.

The Hard Rock Cafe hasn't hired or heard of Blair, either, said its spokesman, Gary Bitner.

Garrity said Blair mentioned Larry Jordan, a developer, in his conversation. He didn't remember the context. Jordan plans to build an affordable housing project nearby. He needs land to create or enhance existing wetlands in exchange for the wetlands his project will destroy. He said he doesn't need it for parking.

While Jordan said he did discuss the project with Blair last month, he said he didn't ask him to call Garrity.

"Not that I know of," said Jordan, who said Blair is not working for him in any capacity.

"You'll have to ask him about the phone call," he said.

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

Brian Blair denies having wetlands conversation with environmental official 04/17/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2009 11:49pm]
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