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Is this New Tampa land a target for hunting?

Owners of the property, abutting Tampa Palms golf course, face environmental citation.
 
Owners of 937 undeveloped acres near residences and the Tampa Palms Golf and Country Club have been cited for environmental violations by the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission. Some neighbors fear the unpermitted work is a precursor to allowing hunting on the land.
Owners of 937 undeveloped acres near residences and the Tampa Palms Golf and Country Club have been cited for environmental violations by the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission. Some neighbors fear the unpermitted work is a precursor to allowing hunting on the land. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published April 5, 2023|Updated April 7, 2023

The first complaints about possible illegal activity in a 937-acre preserve abutting the Tampa Palms Golf and Country Club came in the spring of 2020.

Neighbors said they heard heavy construction equipment operating on the undeveloped land. One called it “intensive construction noise” audible from the 14th hole on the golf course.

Environmental inspectors headed to the site and found downed trees, damaged wetlands and construction of a dirt road. They also said they observed hunting stands and a feed plot, according to public records.

The findings triggered concerns among residents of potential development or an even more disconcerting question: Could the new owners be planning to use the land for hunting.

“Turning conservation land into a hunting ground, with homes all around it, is deeply disturbing,” said Maggie Wilson, a 33-year resident of Tampa Palms, vice president of the homeowners association and an officer of the Community Development District.

Three years later, there’s been no resolution and the property owner isn’t saying what he plans to do with the land.

Hunting “presents a danger to the surrounding community, with large apartment complexes, a golf course and country club, and several residential neighborhoods,” Warren Dixon, a business consultant to the Tampa Palms Owners Association, said in a March 2022 email to the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission. “Badly aimed shots from this area can cross major roadways (Tampa Palms Boulevard, Bruce B. Downs Boulevard) and even wind up in the parking lot of the City Plaza shopping center.”

The land is adjacent to Amberly Drive, one of the main thoroughfares in Tampa Palms. The property is owned by Sunshine State Conservation LLC and is the subject of a Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission citation that seeks to restore the land and repair the wetlands.

Location of preserved land in Tampa Palms. The owners have been cited by the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission, and neighbors are concerned the land could be used for hunting.
Location of preserved land in Tampa Palms. The owners have been cited by the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission, and neighbors are concerned the land could be used for hunting. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

A prominent Wesley Chapel landowner and philanthropist is one of the people who triggered the dispute. Sunshine State Conservation is co-managed by James Don Porter Jr. of Dade City. He said there was no ill intent in the site work.

“The intent is to make things better than they ever were before and to preserve things in a better manner than a county, a city or a state can,” Porter told the Tampa Bay Times.

J.D. Porter, center, in hat and white shirt, and members of the Porter family listen to speakers during the grand opening of the Porter Family Indoor Performance Facility at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus on Jan. 10.
J.D. Porter, center, in hat and white shirt, and members of the Porter family listen to speakers during the grand opening of the Porter Family Indoor Performance Facility at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus on Jan. 10. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
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Who is J.D. Porter?

Porter, 44, known as J.D., is the public face of the Porter family, which is developing its Wiregrass Ranch in Pasco County into a sprawling 5,000-acre residential and commercial hub south of State Road 54 and east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The family’s philanthropic contributions have put the Porter name on the Pasco Hernando State College Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel and on the recently christened Porter Family Indoor Performance Facility at the University of South Florida.

J.D. Porter, owner and developer of his family's  Wiregrass Ranch property in Wesley Chapel, also is partner in Sunshine State Conservation, which has run afoul of environmental regulators in Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa.
J.D. Porter, owner and developer of his family's Wiregrass Ranch property in Wesley Chapel, also is partner in Sunshine State Conservation, which has run afoul of environmental regulators in Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa.

Sunshine State Conservation lists Porter and Justin Grace, 44, of Clearwater as its partners/managers. However, only Porter signed the loan documents as a co-borrower when Sunshine State obtained $1.22 million to purchase a separate 86 acres in Pasco County in 2020. Grace did not respond to emails, voicemail messages and texts seeking comment.

Sunshine State acquired most of its New Tampa property in 2018 from Ecopalms Inc., a company controlled by Bing Kearney, president of Kearney Development Co. of Riverview. The 937 acres of undeveloped land in Tampa Palms had been used historically for logging, according to public records, and designated as “conservation/open space” in the county-approved master plan for Tampa Palms.

View of the entrance to the property owned by Sunshine State Conservation from Amberly Drive in the Tampa Palms development in New Tampa.
View of the entrance to the property owned by Sunshine State Conservation from Amberly Drive in the Tampa Palms development in New Tampa. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

The south portion of Southern State’s property borders Cypress Creek, Hillsborough River and Lettuce Lake. Part of the northern acreage is near the tee for the golf course’s 14th hole and multiple fairways. One of the neighborhoods in close proximity is the Reserve at Tampa Palms, an exclusive portion of the upscale development, where multimillion-dollar homes sit on half-acre lots.

The land contains a significant amount of wetlands and minimal uplands. It “is an important wildlife habitat that provides storm water and other ecological services for the Tampa Palms area,” Mary Danielewicz-Bryson, senior forest examiner for the city of Tampa, said in an April 2022 email to the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.

Flooding fears

The site drew scrutiny from the city of Tampa, the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the public complaints.

City and county staff visited in May 2020. What they found, according to public records, was evidence the property owners cleared a large upland area, installed a culvert, excavated a pond and dug trenches — to obtain fill dirt — to build a road through wetlands.

Sunshine State said the road was existing and it added only a few inches of fill dirt for maintenance.

Later, during an August inspection, an attorney retained by Sunshine State told a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer project manager the work was carried out under an “agricultural activities exemption,” according to public records.

Neighbors said they feared the altered wetlands and deeper ditches could contribute to future flooding in Tampa Palms.

The city of Tampa issued a stop-work order to Sunshine State Conservation in July 2020 on land it owns abutting Tampa Palms.
The city of Tampa issued a stop-work order to Sunshine State Conservation in July 2020 on land it owns abutting Tampa Palms. [ Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission ]

The city of Tampa issued a stop-work order in July 2020 and a violation notice four months later alleging the owners, without permits, knocked down or damaged protected trees, cleared land and failed to buffer wetlands.

In July 2021, the case went to a hearing before a code enforcement special magistrate who ruled in the city’s favor and assessed a penalty of $150,000. Sunshine State appealed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, but reached a settlement in September 2021 in which it agreed to plant at least $100,000 worth of trees within two years.

No-trespassing signs mark the entrance to the Sunshine State Conservation land off Amberly Drive in the Tampa Palms development in New Tampa.
No-trespassing signs mark the entrance to the Sunshine State Conservation land off Amberly Drive in the Tampa Palms development in New Tampa. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

The Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission issued its citation and order to correct on July 28, 2022.

Sunshine State has not formally responded to the commission’s citation beyond asking for additional time to reply.

The Environmental Protection Commission proposed a consent order in which Sunshine State would pay a $5,000 fine, plus $1,350 in costs; remove the fill dirt, restore the property to its former state and plant nearly 1,200 cypress, laurel oak and red maple trees. Sunshine State has not agreed to those terms.

What’s passive recreation?

The planned use of the property is not clear.

Sunshine State, in an after-the-fact application for permission to impact wetlands, said the property would be used for unspecified passive recreation. Neighbors worried the site work, including the bulked-up road, was a precursor to hunting activity next to their community of more than 4,000 households.

“We still do not know what use they intend, but suspect hunting or shooting,” Dixon, the Tampa Palms Owners Association business consultant, said in an Aug. 20, 2020, email to the Environmental Protection Commission.

Government officials apparently thought likewise.

John Muncy, lead construction inspector for the city of Tampa’s planning and development department, characterized the site as “the hunting camp in New Tampa with no permits” in a July 2020 email instructing city staff to post the stop-work order.

Environmental Protection Commission staff said they observed hunting stands and food plots on the property.

“Is hunting a passive use?” the staff asked according to a worksheet from a July 2021 internal meeting to discuss the wetlands damage.

In a July 2021 letter to Sunshine State, the Environmental Protection Commission asked a series of questions relating to the wetlands permit application. The commission asked point blank:

“What are your proposed passive recreational uses?”

Sunshine State responded seven months later, saying the land would be used for “suitable” and “reasonably foreseeable” activities allowed on conservation land.

“Such uses and activities might include, for example, certain agricultural activities, certain habitat or forest management activities, construction of fencing, campsites, restrooms, visitor centers, cabins, a wetland mitigation bank, and certain other improvements or facilities, just to name a few,” a Sunshine State attorney, Travis Moore Hearne, said in the February 2022 letter to the Environmental Protection Commission.

The commission did not approve the wetlands permit. Sunshine State said it would amend its application.

Porter, in an interview, also declined to say if the property would be used for hunting.

“This has been an absolute nightmare for trying to do the right thing,” he said. “And no, I’m not going to answer the question because I’ve seen what happens when you try to do the right thing.”

Past troubles

Porter and Grace, meanwhile, were cited in Pasco County in March 2021 for illegal hunting activity. The men pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charge and each was ordered to pay $275 in court costs. A state Fish and Wildlife Conservation officer reported observing them in Wesley Chapel attempting to shoot wild turkeys approximately 70 yards from an active feeding station. State law prohibits hunting turkeys within 100 yards of a feeder.

Under a state consent order, Sunshine State Conservation paid $520 in fines and costs for constructing this bridge without permits on property it owns south of State Road 56 and east of Interstate 75 in Wesley Chapel.
Under a state consent order, Sunshine State Conservation paid $520 in fines and costs for constructing this bridge without permits on property it owns south of State Road 56 and east of Interstate 75 in Wesley Chapel. [ Florida Department of Environmental Protection ]

That wasn’t their only trouble in Pasco County. Sunshine State Conservation paid $520 in fines and costs in February 2022 under a state consent order for building a bridge without a permit on undeveloped land it owns just southeast of the Interstate 75 and State Road 56 interchange in Pasco County.

“There was no bridge-building there,” said Porter. “There was an old logging bridge that was repaired because it was stopping the flow of water in Cypress Creek.’’

Florida Department of Environmental Protection records state Sunshine State “constructed a bridge crossing over Cypress Creek without regulatory authorization” and the documentation includes a photograph of a wooden bridge on the property.

The Porter family frequently is lauded for its work in Pasco County. The website for Wiregrass Ranch development boasts of “their lifelong commitment to sound land stewardship.”

Porter said that remains true.

“A thousand percent,” he said. “I actually care about this way more than any damn development we’ve ever had.”