TAMPA— The city of Tampa can't build a bridge over Interstate 75 in New Tampa — at least until another legal battle is settled.
Meeting Thursday morning as the Environmental Protection Commission, Hillsborough County commissioners voted 4-0 to send the controversial issue back to an EPC hearing officer.
The bridge, originally intended as part of an east-west road feeding Interstate 275, would link Commerce Park and New Tampa boulevards. Essentially, it would create a continuous route from northern New Tampa into the heart of Tampa Palms.
City officials won a wetlands permit for the bridge in January 2008, and a West Meadows homeowner appealed the decision in 2009.
In February, hearing officer John Voelpel recommended that the permit be upheld. In his 32-page order, Voelpel wrote that the city and the EPC had presented reasonable assurances that the wetland permit complied with agency rules, that the bridge was a reasonable use of land and that the city had an appropriate mitigation plan for the affected wetlands.
Voelpel also found that the West Meadows homeowner, self-styled environmentalist Evelyn Romano, would not be sufficiently harmed by the bridge construction, and therefore did not have standing.
Bridge opponents have tried to broaden the debate to include its impact on the road system, both in West Meadows and Tampa Palms, as the road becomes a popular alternative to congested Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
"If you lived in West Meadows, you would be standing in my place, equally as outraged as I am," said Charles Marino, one of a group of homeowners who addressed the commissioners on Thursday.
Several residents said they felt they had been shut out of the process. Commissioner Kevin White, who made the motion to remand the decision for another hearing, agreed.
"I don't think this is a fair representation (of New Tampa residents) and I don't think that this issue has been fairly represented to the people of West Meadows," he said. "The city should have been more proactive in publishing the notice to begin with."
Commissioner Ken Hagan agreed, adding that his parents live in West Meadows, before seconding the motion.
Douglas Manson, the attorney representing the city, said, "We will be appealing. … This was a political decision and not a legal one."
Normally, Manson said, an appeal is remanded so that the hearing officer can answer specific questions of fact. In this case, he said, there were no such questions.
Nor does Manson agree that residents were shut out of the permit process. "There was notice given, there were numerous meetings," he said.
EPC assistant attorney Andrew Zodrow called the move "unprecedented," adding that it went against the advice of two agency lawyers.
And the vote left some matters unclear, Zodrow said. Among them: The lawyer for the citizens' group, Warren Dixon, had asked for a new hearing officer, as he thought Voelpel was predisposed to uphold the permit. There was no mention in the motion of a new hearing officer.
The vote pleased and surprised the West Meadows homeowners. "I'm elated," said Cheryl Applebaum. "My husband tried to tell me that it [the bridge] was a fait accompli."
Reach Marlene Sokol at email@example.com or (813) 909-4602.