If you spend any time along the southern Nature Coast, you are reminded that those of us lucky enough to live here surely live in paradise. The pristine beauty of the Gulf of Mexico, the vast open coastal marshes, the amazing sea grass beds along the coast, and the wild places where Florida black bears still roam are our back yard. We are blessed to live in such a place, and we have an obligation to ensure that we are good stewards for what we hold in trust for future generations.
The debate over the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne development project in the historic community of Aripeka speaks directly to the questions facing us as we try to balance growth with preserving the natural places and human communities that define who we are. If we overbuild, dredge through, or pave over the wild places in our community, what sort of future are we creating for our kids?
Pasco County likes to promote ecotourism in the area with the slogan "Pasco: It's Only Natural." The growth boom, then bust, of the last five to 10 years would lead one to believe that a more appropriate tag line might be "Pasco: It's Only Sprawl." Pasco County will grow, but what kind of growth and where it is located are not determined by what is in the public interest, but rather by what is in the interest of the large developer or politically connected landowner. In the Nature Coast we can, and must, do better.
SunWest Harbourtowne is the wrong project in the wrong place. It's wrong for Florida black bears, for Florida manatees, for the community of Aripeka, and for the citizens who have seen megadevelopment after megadevelopment either crash and burn or drive taxes up without the promised increase in revenue for the county.
Sadly, the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) approved a comprehensive plan amendment that will allow the megadevelopment on the coast to move forward. While DCA raised excellent questions and concerns during the review of this project and was open to the concerns of citizens and conservation organizations, in the end it signed off on the kind of development that Florida no longer can support.
Despite this approval, the fight to protect the coastlines and sea grass beds of the Aripeka region continues. Numerous state and federal permits are needed for this project, and conservation groups including the Gulf Coast Conservancy, Gulf Restoration Network, and Defenders of Wildlife continue to work to stop the destruction of coastal resources that are critical to wildlife, our recreational and commercial fishing industries, and our regional economy.
If the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has taught us anything, it is that we can't forget the tremendous value of our coastal environments for our communities, our fisheries, and our economy. Protecting our coastlines and our wild places from pollution and destruction is more important than ever before.
The loss of habitat for Florida black bears, the loss of critical seagrass beds, and the pollution of coastal wetlands all mark reasons why this project is wrong. Given ever increasing hurricanes and strong coastal storms, coupled with sea level rise and increased coastal flooding, why place thousands of new residents in harm's way simply to allow megadevelopment along our coastlines? SunWest Harbourtowne is the wrong project in the wrong place.
Future generations will judge us on how we treat our environment and what we choose to value and save. We'll have to account for our actions and explain why we did not learn from the mistakes of the past. Economic development that comes at the expense of the environment is folly. The Nature Coast deserves better than this.
Joe Murphy is on the Florida program staff for the Gulf Restoration Network and submitted this column on behalf of the Gulf Coast Conservancy, the Gulf Restoration Network and Defenders of Wildlife. For information, see gulfcoastconservancy.org.