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Land was cleared without permit

The attorney couched the warning in legalese, but the message to Hillsborough County officials could not have been clearer.

If a developer did not receive a permit by 5 p.m., Joel Tew wrote, U.S. Home Corp. would act as though the permit had been issued and clear 150 acres of environmentally sensitive land.

No permit came, and the trees fell.

"It is somewhat appalling," said John Schrecengost, the county's usually soft-spoken forester. "It's just a question of industry ethics."

County officials and attorneys say they have never seen a letter like Tew's. Companies sometimes clear land improperly, but an attorney never puts the suggestion in writing.

Tew said he wrote the letter after nine months of waiting. Never had the county taken so long to review a permit, he said. Never had it put so many barriers before a developer.

"They had no legitimate excuse," said Tew of Clearwater. "I have never seen one held up so long."

"I have some strong suspicions, " he added, "that it had nothing to do with the permit. We felt it was being held up for other reasons."

The reasons may go back to the 1980s, when the Sierra Club sued to protect the land in what is now known as New Tampa. The Sierra Club won a partial victory and the fight helped launch the political career of Ed Turanchik, now a Hillsborough county commissioner.

Turanchik voted last year to let U.S. Home build an 887-home subdivision, called Heritage Isles, on about half the land. Turanchik backed the project because U.S. Home promised to build a different community with nature trails and a town center.

Then U.S. Home unveiled Heritage Isles. It looked a lot like any other subdivision, Turanchik said, including an 18-hole golf course.

"I don't think what is happening to that project is what the county intended," he said.

While Turanchik protested, U.S. Home applied to clear the land.

County officials first looked at the land-clearing permit in July, but U.S. Home never provided information needed for a permit, said Gene Boles, director of the county's planning and growth management department.

"They were not complying with the code," Boles said. "The delay was entirely because they did not do this."

Staff asked for information more than six times, he said. They only got it after the land had been cleared.

For nine months, though, Tew said U.S. Home gave the county all the facts it needed. The county kept asking for more data, he said. His letters were increasingly blunt:

"No further review should be required," Tew wrote Nov. 5, 1997.

"The permit . . . should have been approved a long time ago," he wrote on Feb. 19.

The county wanted U.S. Home to resubmit its plan. Tew refused.

Then, he made his demand: Issue the permit by a certain date, or U.S. Home will proceed as though a permit had been granted.

"It's a legal maneuver," Boles said.

Because the county never told Tew in writing not to proceed, he said he assumed the county agreed to his terms. U.S. Home had no choice but to clear the land in January, Tew said. If it waited longer, it would have defaulted on its contracts and financing.

"Their whole course of conduct raises questions of government ethics for intentionally holding up this (permit)," Tew said.

He offered no proof of wrongdoing.

Tew's letter was "garbage," said David Ford, a project manger in the county's development department. "He had no basis to do that."

Ford said he told the company's engineer not to proceed. Engineer Tim Plate of Heidt & Associates declined to comment.

Turanchik was even angrier.

"Joel has about as much charm as a hedgehog," he said. "He is one of the most unpleasant people to come before the County Commission."

Turanchik said he never interfered with the permit, never asked staff to delay it. Yes, Turanchik said, he asked questions about the project, and his aide followed its status.

"That's our job," he said. "If Mr. Tew doesn't like the fact that a county commissioner monitors a permit, I suggest he should move to another county."

Gene Lanton, U.S. Home's division president, said all the quibbling might be moot. The county eventually issued the permit, though it didn't quite cover the development action.

U.S. Home cleared about 3 acres more than the permit eventually allowed, officials said. Tew said that "was not intentional."

"We feel we have done what we were supposed to do at every step along the way," division president Lanton said.

The county will require U.S. Home to compensate for the 150 acres cleared before a permit, said Boles, the development director.

U.S. Home agreed on its own, with no admission of wrongdoing, to restore the 3 acres mistakenly razed.

The county gave the company 30 days to submit a restoration plan. Those 30 days have passed.

The plan "is very close to being finished," Tew said.

The county will get it when it's done, he said.