The developers of the proposed Cypress Creek Town Center just collected a second mulligan. A U.S. District Court of Appeals last week restored much of a federal permit to build the mall at a 500-acre site abutting Interstate 75 and State Road 56. The 17-page ruling effectively reverses last year's lower court decision that sided with the Sierra Club and froze the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' permission for the project.
The Sierra Club had sued in 2007, contending that the Army Corps failed to follow the federal Clean Water Act and other safeguards when issuing the original permit, but the higher court rejected most of the environmentalists' objections.
Still to be determined, however, is exactly how the mall developers, the Richard E. Jacobs Group of Cleveland and Sierra Properties of Tampa, will proceed in light of another portion of the appeals court decision calling for additional scrutiny of wildlife protections. The court ordered the Army Corps to consider concerns surrounding the eastern indigo snake, a species deemed threatened by disappearing habitat since the late 1970s.
The mall site, even in its undeveloped state, is too small to act as a stand-alone, sustainable habitat for the far-ranging snake. However, the appeals court said, the Army Corps failed to address the potential for the developed mall to fragment exiting habitats to the north and south. Such fragmentation increases the likelihood of snakes being killed by highway traffic. The court stopped short of ordering the corps to require a wildlife corridor, but it did tell the agency to explain further its previous determination "that the project was not likely to adversely affect the indigo snake.''
The court ruling marks the second time mall backers have been given a renewed opportunity to bolster environmental promises. In 2009, the Army Corps reinstated a suspended permit — but assessed a $300,000 fine — after builders discharged muddy water into the federally protected Cypress Creek and cleared an acre of forested wetland that was supposed to be preserved.
The permit violations — blamed on human error rather than a flawed design — ran counter to earlier pledges to protect natural resources. The developers, to answer concerns about damage to 57 acres of wetlands and to obtain the needed permits, previously downsized the project, redesigned the stormwater drainage system, promised to curb potential damage to wetlands along the creek and targeted more than 115 acres within the Hillsborough River basin to acquire as wetlands mitigation.
Now, as the Army Corps reassesses its own scrutiny of wildlife protections, the developers should reaffirm their environmental stewardship. If the agency deems the developed mall would be a realistic hazard to a threatened species, the builders should act accordingly. Construction, for instance, could include additional culverts to facilitate wildlife crossings.
County officials get excited about Cypress Creek Town Center's plans for 1.3 million square feet of retail space in an outdoor mall. Developers anticipate producing more than 3,800 full-time jobs and tax receipts to Pasco County and the school district of more than $8 million a year.
Lucrative economic considerations however, can't be allowed to bury legitimate environmental concerns. The Army Corps must rationalize its earlier findings, and the developers must be ready to modify their plans if additional wildlife safeguards are required.