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A DRAINING DILEMMA

A small dam at Saddlebrook resort, built to solve a storm drainage problem, is causing new headaches.

Frank Mascioli survived three wars as a Seabee, building roads, bridges and dams on dangerous battlegrounds as a member of the Navy's crack construction battalions.

In 1990, a widower who had tired of military life, Mascioli bought 12{ acres of virgin woodlands and wetlands in central Pasco County and retired to a neat, modest home surrounded by lawns, landscaping and gardens he tends himself on the only corner of his property tamed from its natural wild state.

Last year, the peace of Mascioli's life dissolved in several feet of water, and he despairs of putting it back together before he dies.

In what has become a classic David-and-Goliath story, a lawsuit has been filed on Mascioli's behalf against Saddlebrook resort and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

The action thrusts the 71-year-old Ohio native into a long legal battle involving the owners of Wiregrass Ranch, one of the most valuable pieces of undeveloped property in the region; the posh, four-star resort, home to such luminaries as tennis star Martina Hingis and Gulf War commander Norman Schwarzkopf; and Swiftmud.

The dispute has rubbed nerves raw on all sides and raised questions about how closely Swiftmud monitors a permitting process designed to protect the environment and neighbors of new development.

At the heart of Mascioli's problem is a small dam, much like he might have built for the Navy. It was built last year by Saddlebrook on the property line it shares with Mascioli to prevent stormwater runoff from taking its natural course through Mascioli's wetland and onto the resort, Mascioli's neighbor to the west.

With its only escape route blocked, runoff sits on Mascioli's land, and when it rains heavily, spreads out over the neighborhood.

After the structure was completed in April 1998, Mascioli's property and his neighbors' land flooded. School buses, ambulances and mail carriers couldn't get down the roads, the residents told the Times. Mascioli, who is in failing health, said he was forced to park his truck at the end of his long driveway and hike through thigh-high water to and from his house.

One neighbor moved to Tennessee after living for months in an inundated home and having his dogs bitten by poisonous water moccasins. Another had to relevel his house, which sank several inches into saturated soil.

Despite a drier-than-normal year that followed the dam's completion, much of Mascioli's land remained under water for 11 months and was still wet as recently as mid-August.

"All I wanted was to walk through my woods, to see my birds and animals and enjoy the peace and quiet," Mascioli said recently, close to tears. "But I can't. My woods are always too squishy now. You can't go back there without sinking in. I worry every storm that my yard and my house will flood again."

Don Porter frets about Mascioli. A soft-spoken member of the family that owns Wiregrass Ranch, Porter says he feels responsible for Mascioli's plight.

The Porter family's 5,100-acre ranch is on the opposite side of Saddlebrook from Mascioli, abutting the resort downstream to the south and west. Much of the water that used to flow through the Mascioli property to Saddlebrook eventually found its way to Wiregrass.

The Porters say that as developers filled wetlands for golf courses and built roads, homes and condos, more and more stormwater gushed onto their land, expanding wetlands and generally limiting areas of potential future development.

"In the early "80s, there were no structures to hold back water, and it was flowing unimpeded onto our property 10 to 11 months a year," said Porter. "In the rainy season, it was terrible. There was deep standing water 100 to 150 yards outside the cypress trees (that defined the old wetland boundaries). We had never seen that before."

Since 1983, the Porters have waged a court battle to limit the amount of water Saddlebrook can release onto Wiregrass, and eventually, Frank Mascioli got caught up in the fray.

"If we hadn't been fighting to keep excess water off our land, Saddlebrook might not have felt it necessary to dam up Mr. Mascioli's property, and Mr. Mascioli and his neighbors wouldn't be flooding," Porter said. "I feel responsible for where Mr. Mascioli is because he really was an innocent bystander in the dispute between Wiregrass and Saddlebrook. He has a legitimate problem that is no fault of his own. He needs and deserves help."

In some ways, Saddlebrook is caught in a bind of someone else's making.

The 480 acres that make up the resort, which is a mile east of the intersection of I-75 and State Road 54, used to belong to Wiregrass. The Porters sold the land in 1973 to a family that later resold it to Tom Dempsey, the owner of Saddlebrook. When Dempsey applied to Pasco County in 1979 for a development permit, the county insisted on a stipulation that all stormwater be retained on the site.

But changes in the condition of their land led the Porters to believe much more runoff was draining onto the property than the stipulation permitted. This sparked the initial legal action in 1983.

The case went to a jury trial in 1989, and the Porters won an $8-million judgment against Saddlebrook. The judgment later was overturned on appeal, and the Porters have been fighting _ and losing _ court battles ever since. The next phase is scheduled to open in Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court next January.

"This issue is about the Porters. They know very well there was no damage to their land, but once you've tasted $8-million, it's hard to admit you're wrong," said Greg Riehle, vice president of Saddlebrook. "They keep raising new issues, like Frank Mascioli, throwing them against the wall and hoping something sticks."

Although the litigation history has left Saddlebrook free from any liability so far, in 1990 a court ordered that the resort's stormwater system be redesigned to mimic as closely as possible the runoff patterns of 1973, when the Porters first sold the property.

One element of that redesign, approved by Swiftmud, was the dam.

Swiftmud, the state agency that makes and enforces water policy in the region, did not seek a role in this fight, and some officials now express regret that oversight of the redesign of Saddlebrook's stormwater system fell into their laps.

The regret is shared by the Porter family and by residents of Frank Mascioli's neighborhood, Williams Acres, who view the dam as a threat to their health and property.

The dam stands just to the east of a golf cart bridge and a few feet west of Mascioli's property line. It blocks stormwater from flowing into a body of water named Pond 16 that fronts the home of Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey.

The dam rises only a few feet above the land, to an elevation of 81 feet above sea level, but some experts say that is enough to trigger flooding.

Swiftmud and Saddlebrook officials disagree, saying 81 feet above sea level is the historic average elevation of water on Mascioli's property, therefore nothing has changed.

"No, no, no, not so," said Moe Famkar, chief hydrologist with the Pasco engineering and planning firm of RBFP Inc., which is examining the impacts of the dam for Porter. "Sure, during a heavy rain, water on Mr. Mascioli's property could maybe rise briefly to 81 feet because the only course off the property was only 15 feet wide.

"But the elevation of the land was 78{ feet, 2{ feet lower than the dam. So the water started flowing away much earlier. And the dam narrows the opening to 10 feet, so the water gets deeper and flows slower. It floods. It will intensify over time until no one out there can use their septic fields."

Famkar's analysis matches the recollections of Mascioli's neighbors.

"Oh, sure, during heavy rains we got standing water because we live in a low area, but a few days and it was gone," said Bob Freist, a neighbor whose wife, Linda, had to move the family's horses to Wildwood for four months because of high water. "The day they got the dam in place it flooded, and the water stayed for five months. We've been out here 20 years, and no matter how often we got standing water, it always went away fast. Not anymore."

Curt Brewer, another neighbor, said his property remained flooded for three months, and he was forced to have his home releveled at a cost of $700.

"It's still not right, and I'll probably have to have it releveled again," Brewer said.

Steve Goff said water in his yard reached the headlights of his four-wheel-drive pickup.

"You can't do that to people," he said of Swiftmud. "You got to let the water flow free."

In fact, the Swiftmud board approved Saddlebrook's permit after receiving staff assurances there would be no adverse impacts from the redesign and reconstruction. In doing so, the staff relied on data from Professional Engineering Consultants Inc., of Orlando, Saddlebrook's engineering consultant.

This is not unusual, said John Heuer, deputy executive director of Swiftmud.

"The agency doesn't have the resources to do this work itself on all the permit applications that come through," Heuer said. "We have to rely on the outside engineers who sign and seal their work."

Thus the Swiftmud staff report concluded: "The project engineer (PEC) has submitted calculations and construction drawings which indicate no adverse off-site impacts will result from this modification. Existing flooding in Williams Acres and the privately owned areas of Saddlebrook will not increase."

No one questioned it, and the Swiftmud board approved the permit.

One problem with assessing the necessity for and the impact of the dam is that the rationale for it keeps changing depending on who is speaking.

Saddlebrook has a Swiftmud permit to pump groundwater into its ponds to supply irrigation for golf courses and common areas. The dam is important, Heuer said, because it keeps water from backing up onto Mascioli's land when Pond 16 is full.

Paul Desmaris, director of regulation at Swiftmud's headquarters in Brooksville, said the dam was important because it prevented Pond 16 from draining Mascioli's wetland when the pond level was low.

Heuer insisted there used to be a dirt berm near where the dam is now that was at least 81 feet in elevation and kept water from flowing off Mascioli's land until it reached the 81-foot level. There is no berm there now. Mascioli and his neighbors insist such a berm never existed.

And an engineering drawing done by Saddlebrook's own consulting engineer and filed with Swiftmud shows the land that would be blocked by the dam at an elevation of 78{ feet, not 81 feet.

When Mascioli pleaded for help from Swiftmud, he received a letter from Executive Director E.D. "Sonny" Vergara suggesting the staff was reluctant to recommend modifications to the dam because of fears of embroiling the agency in new litigation.

"Litigation could result in the modification not being approved," Vergara wrote in a letter dated June 11. "This would leave you in no better position than you are now, and the District, Saddlebrook and Wiregrass Ranch would have spent large sums of money on legal fees without benefit to anyone."

Fred Reeves, a Pasco attorney who was retained by the Porters to represent Mascioli in his lawsuit, said it appears to him that Swiftmud is trying to ignore his client in the hopes he will go away.

"They don't want to deal with it," said Reeves, a veteran of the region's water wars. "It seems pretty obvious that dam is holding back water from its natural flows when Swiftmud's own regulations say you can't alter water flows in any way that has detrimental effects upstream or downstream.

"They're sure not treating Mr. Mascioli very well."

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