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, according to 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.
"It doesn't mean they're done doing what they're doing out there," said Eric Summa, chief of the corps' enforcement section in Jacksonville. "Say, they want to put a Target (store) or put utilities on it. They won't be able to do that."
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 federal lawsuit.
"We remain confident that this suit has no merit and that our permit will be upheld," Roberts said. She said the developer is disappointed that the corps chose to suspend its permit Friday.
The corps and the developer are joining forces to fight the lawsuit.
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?
In a letter released Friday, the corps' district engineer gave a glimpse into how much the corps leaned on the developer's assurances of self-regulation.
"It is evident that the corps reviewer relied heavily on the permittee's proposed plans and environmental controls to gain assurance that the project would meet the (federal) guidelines, would be in the public interest, and would not impose significant, unacceptable impacts to wetlands and water quality," wrote Col. Paul Grosskruger. "It is clear that these assurances have not been met."
Environmentalists agree - to an extent - that the lawsuit has nothing to do with the permit suspension.
Layne said the federal hearing likely to be held next month will only examine the record of how the corps came to award the Cypress Creek Town Center permit, and not the paperwork from this latest suspension.
But the lawsuit and the suspension are rooted in the same issue, she argued.
"This does go back to the lawsuit," Layne said.
"If they had done this from the beginning" - meaning apply tighter controls on filling and developing the wetlands - "it would have protected the creek. ...Nobody's been watching the site. They've been relying on the developer. They're not doing their work and that's what the lawsuit says. This is the big 'I told you so.'"
She's asking for the 54 acres of filled wetlands to be replanted.
"If they can mitigate wetlands off-site, they can put it right back where it was," she said.
Development continues at the site.
Mall spokeswoman Roberts said Cypress Creek Town Center still plans to open the project in October.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4613.