A developer has won approval to destroy 480 acres of environmentally sensitive land without permission from a board that normally must endorse such large-scale land clearing.
U.S. Home Corp. received permission in September to clear land for Heritage Isles, a 1,599-home subdivision just east of Hunter's Green.
Normally, the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, must okay clearance of more than 100 acres of land.
But U.S. Home won its permits by dividing its project into six pieces all smaller than 100 acres. Two pieces were split into sections of 99 acres; the others were 95 acres, 94 acres, 65 acres and 28 acres.
U.S. Home division president Gene Lanton said regulators looked at the project overall, even though it was divided into different phases. "To my knowledge, everything is always studied in the macro sense," Lanton said. "It was certainly evaluated incrementally but also in the big picture."
Environmentalists say the maneuver makes it easier to raze environmentally sensitive land that should be carefully pruned instead. Other agencies that looked at the Heritage Isles development as a whole opposed the massive land clearing.
"To me, it's a way of circumventing the oversight of large-scale projects," said Suzanne Cooper, an environmental planner at the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council. "The rules were obviously set up for a reason."
Swiftmud should look at the project as a whole, she said, "so you are not looking at it piecemeal."
The planning council recommended against the mass clearing, saying it would destroy wildlife habitat and 44 percent of the land's native vegetation.
Hillsborough County also opposed U.S. Home's first proposal for the clearing. The county must sign off before U.S. Home can actually bring in bulldozers.
The county asked Clearwater-based U.S. Home three times to modify its plans. County officials, who want U.S. Home to save as many native plants as possible, are still studying the latest proposal.
"I was not feeling they had done their best job," senior forester John Schrecengost said.
Biologists consider the area one of the richest in Tampa Bay for wildlife. Hillsborough County designated the land as "significant wildlife habitat" because of its combination of forest, pasture and swamp. The property also sits between the Hillsborough River and the Green Swamp, connecting the two areas for migrating animals.
In 1989, the Sierra Club went to court in the interest of the property and won partial protection in a settlement.
Those protections, though, do not prevent U.S. Home from clearing part of the land. Swiftmud approved the clearing because the work will not damage any wetlands no matter which way they looked at it, said John Heuer, director of Swiftmud's Tampa office.
A map of the project shows Heritage Isles as one subdivision. Heuer said he did not know why U.S. Home would break the project into phases.
Matthew Campo, a regulator in Swiftmud's Tampa office who works for Heuer, said it was probably the same reason many developers break up projects.
"They choose to do that so they would not go before the board," Campo said.
Board approval usually takes 60 days, Swiftmud spokesman Michael Molligan said. The board can deny a permit, but that isn't likely.
To skip the process, a developer must pay a $1,600 application fee for each "phase." Swiftmud's regulations do not clearly say what makes up a "phase."
"That's the consultant's discretion," Campo said.
Last year, staff in Swiftmud's Tampa office signed a memo complaining about "special priorities and loose rule interpretations" for developers. The memo said regulators were given little time to closely review projects.
Swiftmud officials said staff members do not like the new system that was designed to review permits more efficiently. Critics say the system forces staff to rubber-stamp projects.
Lanton, of U.S. Home, said the company hopes to create a model community with nature preserves and tree-lined roads.
"We are taking great care to retain any natural aspects of the property," Lanton said. "That is one of the attractivenesses of the parcel."
Heuer, the Swiftmud official, also praised the project, particularly its golf course.
According to U.S. Home's plans, the course will dart around cypress trees and wetlands. "No Hunting" signs and steep slopes will keep golfers out of protected woods. And on the ninth hole, golfers will play around a timber bridge built to protect a nest of rare "hooded pitcher" plants.