Published Feb. 12, 2008|Updated Feb. 26, 2008

St. Petersburg surgeon J. Crayton Pruitt has again withdrawn a controversial development project in the Big Bend region before a vote to deny him a state permit to destroy wetlands could be taken.

The Suwannee River Water Management District board was to vote today on the Taylor County development project. Its staff was recommending a denial because of opposition from state Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham.

As a result, Pruitt's environmental consultant, Beverly Birkett of Tampa, said late Monday the permit application has been pulled so Pruitt can again try to work things out with state officials.

In 20 years of working on environmental permits, Birkett said, "I've never seen DCA take this kind of stand. ... It's kind of curious and puzzling."

Pruitt has been trying to develop his property in the small community of Dekle Beach for more than two years. Originally, his plans called for turning 500 acres of swamp and salt marsh locals call Boggy Bay into a condominium and hotel project with a marina, to be called Magnolia Bay.

But to make the marina work, he needed state and federal permission to dredge a 7-foot-deep channel, 2 miles long and 100 feet wide, through the Big Bend Seagrass Aquatic Preserve, the state's largest aquatic preserve.

State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole wrote a letter saying the project would not be in the public interest, and the Suwannee River Water Management District staff recommended denying Pruitt a permit. Before the permit could come to a vote, though, Pruitt withdrew his application.

Last year, he came up with a revised project that dropped the marina and channel, added a golf course and changed the name to the Reserve at Sweetwater Estuary. But his plans still called for destroying 58 acres of wetlands adjacent to the aquatic preserve in order to build 624 condominium units, an 874-unit hotel, 280,000 square feet of commercial space and the golf course.

State environmental regulators still questioned Pruitt's plans, for instance, wondering why the golf course needed to be built atop filled-in wetlands.

And the state Department of Community Affairs sent the water district a letter in the fall saying "the proposed impact to wetlands could significantly affect wildlife habitat," especially in the state preserve, and thus was inconsistent with the state's plan for coastal areas.

But the staff of the water district said last month that it would recommend the district's governing board approve the permit in a vote scheduled for today.

So Pelham, the head of the Department of Community Affairs, sent a strongly worded letter to water district executive director Jerry Scarborough on Feb. 1 warning that, because of his agency's objections, "the district may not issue the permit."

If Pruitt were to sue, Pelham wrote that would be fine because "the department ... is fully prepared" to defend itself in court.

As a result of Pelham's letter, on Friday the water district staff recommended denial of Pruitt's new development plan.

News of the staff's change of heart delighted environmental activists who have long opposed Pruitt's plans for one of the state's last undeveloped coastal areas.

"This is the wrong project in the wrong p lace," said Joe Murphy of the Gulf Restoration Network.

Pruitt's proposed development has won friends among Taylor County's business and political leaders, however. The county has seen little of the development that has swept across the rest of the state in the past 20 years. Taylor County's population is 19,000, or roughly 18 people per square mile. By contrast, Pinellas County has more than 3,000 people per square mile.