Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet gave the go-ahead Tuesday for developers to dig an 85-foot wide boat channel through more than 27 acres of sea grass in northwest Pasco County.
The vote gives the county and SunWest Harbourtowne builders the land rights to dredge the waterway near the planned 2,500-home development. The 4-mile channel would be at a future county park equipped with seven boat ramps and 250 boat parking spaces.
The project still needs approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Earlier this month, the National Marine Fisheries Services of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommended the corps deny the permit.
But the state's top environmental officer pushed Scott and the Cabinet to approve the permit.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said the proposal exceeded state requirements for environmental mitigation and improved public access with more boat ramps.
"We've put this in four different (construction) phases, because the public benefits need to stay ahead of the game," Vinyard said.
Julie Brashears Wraithmell of the Florida Audubon told Scott and the Cabinet that she was unaware of the Cabinet ever approving a permit that required more than 1 acre of sea grass mitigation.
"This is not just a local issue," Wraithmell said. "This application is unprecedented in the state's history."
Michele Baker, Pasco's assistant county administrator, agreed it was an extraordinary request. But she urged Scott and the Cabinet to focus on the county plans to enhance or create 29 acres of sea grass and another 53 acres of saltwater marsh, mangrove swamp and other shallow coastal wetlands known as subtidal habitat.
"It's also unprecedented in terms of the mitigation," Baker said.
The most pointed questions about the request for a submerged lands lease came from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater comprise the Florida Cabinet.
Putnam questioned the width of the channel, saying it would be big enough to accommodate boats that cost $250,000.
"You're designing it for some pretty big boats for in-shore fishing," he said. "I don't think that's the common, trailer-able boats you're going to be finding at your ramps."
After the meeting, Putnam said he voted for the project because it added public access to the water while reclaiming an inactive limerock mine.
"It strikes me that they could have saved themselves some heartburn with a more narrow channel," Putnam said.
"They've over-engineered a channel for basically the largest recreational vessels that people would be able to trailer," he said. "They could have reduced their impact."
But Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano trumpeted the project as a driver for the local and state economy.
"This project is good for Pasco County, it's good for the state of Florida, it's good for the country," Mariano said. "People worldwide are going to look at the state, look at this area and come in here."
Mariano predicted the project would receive approval from the Army Corps.
But a recent letter from Miles Croom, assistant regional administration for the NOAA, raised questions about the "lack of detail" in the county's mitigation plan.
Croom wrote that the mitigation plan was "inadequate and does not provide provisions necessary to preserve ecosystem services in a timely enough manner to offset the anticipated impacts."
Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this story. Michael C. Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.