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ACTION ON PERMIT TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

The wetlands at Cypress Creek mall are already damaged, environmentalists say.

Environmentalists say the recent suspension of a federal permit to fill and develop 54 acres of wetlands at Cypress Creek Town Center amounts to a half measure that comes as too little, too late.

The wetlands in question have already been filled, says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which suspended its permit Friday.

"This is a backhanded way of getting half the punishment out," said Denise Layne of the Sierra Club. "It's a double slap in the face of the community. No. 1, there's the issue of the permit that never had all the (environmental) studies done. And the second slap is that there are now no wetlands there, just damaged property."

But the corps' enforcers argue that the real punishment lies in blocking further development on those 54 acres - out of a 500-acre footprint - until all sides complete an administrative process that could restore, change or revoke the permit.

"Say, they want to put a Target (store) or put utilities on it. They won't be able to do that," said Eric Summa, chief of the corps' enforcement section in Jacksonville.

Friday's permit suspension doesn't affect the rest of the development. "Building construction is not affected by this permit suspension," said mall spokeswoman Deanne Roberts.

The corps is now demanding clear corrective plans from the Richard E. Jacobs Group that would stop runoff from leaving the work site, Summa said.

State and federal environmental officials last week accused the mall's developer of allowing illegal construction runoff to pollute the protected waters of Cypress Creek, a major source of Hillsborough County's drinking water supply.

It's the second time this happened, they say; the first instance occurred last fall.

Environmentalists, who have sued in federal court to challenge the permit, say there were more than two violations.

Pasco County officials confirmed Monday they've issued 23 violations to date for erosion control problems and illicit discharge at the mall site. The Jacobs Group is challenging at least five of these charges in court, said chief assistant county administrator Michele Baker.

Both the corps and the Jacobs Group say Friday's permit suspension is not linked to the suit.

But environmentalists say the lawsuit addresses the same questions that Friday's permit suspension raises: How effective has the corps been in protecting the creek and its associated wetlands?

Development continues at the site.

Mall spokeswoman Roberts said Cypress Creek Town Center still plans to open the project in October.

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