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Jersey Lily expansion in doubt

What seems like an innocuous ditch full of muck behind The Jersey Lily Restaurant & Tavern has been the source of a months-long squabble between the state and the restaurant.

Now it threatens to stop the restaurant from expanding.

"We've about reached the end of the line with this guy, and we're about to turn it over to our enforcement people because we didn't think that anything has been getting done fast enough," said Bill Sietman, director of Brooksville permitting department for the Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud).

Because of continuing problems with the restaurant's retention pond, Swiftmud has asked the county to withhold its certificate of occupancy for the restaurant's second floor until the problems have been resolved. The county has agreed to do so. The second floor is due to open in late March.

Rob Walther, the president of the corporation that owns The Jersey Lily, said the real problem has been with Swiftmud. The general contractor for the project, Bobby Laseter, has been trying to get plans approved for months, Walther said.

"It wasn't until three days ago that we got material approval from Swiftmud," Walther said.

Laseter and Swiftmud representatives are now scheduled to meet early next week to agree on plans for the retention pond. Laseter said he hopes to begin work on it as soon as the plan is finalized. It should be finished in time for the scheduled opening, he said.

"We fully intend to go by everything that Southwest has asked us to do, and we start next week," he said.

It should have been done long ago, Sietman said.

His department requires that buildings the size of The Jersey Lily, an elaborate restaurant and catering operation that cost more than $1-million to build, submit as-built plans for their retention areas before they get final approval to begin operation.

The size of the parking lot determines the size of the pond that is required, he said.

Walther and Laseter never submitted such plans, he said. His agency did not stop the restaurant from opening last fall, because doing so would have required a court order. And he said that the restaurant continued to promise that it would submit plans.

"The indications were that they were going to do that. Now we feel that it has dragged out too long," he said.

The pond that was built stayed full of water almost all the time, Sietman said.

"When you have water in it before it rains, that's a problem," he said. "We've had continued complaints, including that it flooded the neighbor's yard."

One of the neighbors, Carl Taylor, said: "It's just a swamp. It stays full of mosquitoes all the time."

Though those claims are overstated, Laseter said, the pond did not drain quickly as it should. The problem is that the ground beneath the pond is clay, rather than the sand found in most parts of the county. He said he will install an elaborate filter system that will carry away the excess water.

Pumping water out of the pond, which was done Thursday, was the first step.

It was also done without Swiftmud's permission, Sietman said.

"I was disturbed that there was a sump and a pump in there," he said.

And he noted that heavy equipment was removing trees from behind the restaurant when he went to look at the site Friday. Walther said he is expanding the parking lot.

Sietman said that more pavement will require another permit.

"We'll have to keep an eye on them," he said.