TAMPA — Opposition is mounting to a plan for filling in three acres of a Rocky Point lagoon to build luxury townhomes, but proponents say they're confident of approval.
A measure paving the way for the project met with approval a month ago from the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission, but since then, environmental groups have been lobbying City Hall and a nearby neighborhood has launched an online campaign to hire an attorney.
City staff has recommended that Tampa City Council members reject the measure, a land-use amendment, when it comes before them June 28. Mayor Bob Buckhorn also said he opposes the project.
"It's a horrendous precedent to be filling in part of our bay, that we're trying to clean up and maintain," said Mary Keith, president of the Tampa Chapter of the Audubon Society. In a letter to the city, Audubon's state advocacy director warned the move would create a "destructive" precedent that would "spawn copy cat" dredge and fill projects around the state.
No private developer has filled in the waters around Tampa Bay for at least 20 years, planning officials said. The practice created neighborhoods like Snell Isles in St. Petersburg and Tampa's Davis Islands but had largely ended by the 1970s after state and federal laws cracked down on the practice.
But agents for the developer say it meets environmental and other permitting standards and would actually help improve water quality in the Rocky Point area, on the east side of the Courtney Campbell Causeway.
"We're going to go with the facts of the case," said Michael D. Horner, a Tampa land use and zoning consultant working with developer Prime Companies of Cohoes, N.Y.
In addition, a Prime associate has purchased other underwater land — 22 acres just south of Cypress Point Park and north of Interstate 275. David B. Dickey of St. Petersburg, Prime's local agent, paid just $1,100 for the property in 2009 but did not respond to requests for comment on his plans there.
Horner said he couldn't comment on Dickey's plans for the Cypress Point site.
Dickey said last month that Prime paid $10,000 in 2006 for the submerged land in Rocky Point.
Horner told the Tampa Bay Times that city officials offered support for the Rocky Point proposal if the developers would scale back the density and height of the townhomes. Plans now call for seven units and a height of 45 feet to 50 feet and construction of a road through an existing privately owned park.
Prime declined the offer, Horner said.
But that account is inaccurate, said LaChone Dock, a city planner, and the staff continues to oppose the project.
If the project gets council approval, it still requires the okay from a number of other agencies — including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or "Swiftmud," and the county's Environmental Protection Commission.
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The developers would fill in three acres of a nine-acre lagoon connected to Old Tampa Bay that was dredged decades ago to help create the Rocky Point area.
"We're not impacting the water life," Horner said. "We are simply filling in a portion of a borrow pit. It's not the entire borrow pit."
Aerial and historical photos show the acreage in question to be substantially deeper than surrounding waters, much like adjacent channels that have been dredged, said Shawn College, the planning commission's environmental planner.
"This leads me to believe it was dredged at some point in its history," College said.
That opinion is disputed by opponents who point to maps showing the lagoon was there in 1897. Still, the old maps shed no light on whether dredging occurred there, College said.
A retention pond, landscaping and a new configuration for the lagoon — now ringed by apartments and hotels — would improve water quality there, Horner said.
Allison Roberts, president of the nearby Dana Shores Civic Association, said she has seen manatees, dolphins and a variety of fish in the cove while boating there with her family.
"If they can do this area that really is truly in navigable waters," Roberts said, "that is a manatee protection zone, I'm not sure what submerged lands would be safe that are privately owned."
The civic association has started a GoFundMe.com account to hire an attorney and fight the proposal. In addition, the local Sierra Club chapter has written a letter to council members condemning the project and an opposition rally is planned Tuesday at the Westin Tampa Bay on Rocky Point.
City Council member Guido Maniscalco, whose district includes Rocky Point, declined to comment on the proposal.
Buckhorn said in a statement that his staff made the right call.
"Ultimately, it's up to City Council, but I believe our city staff did their due diligence and came to the right conclusion," he said.
Steve Michelini, a Westin consultant, has been lobbying council members to reject the proposal.
"Is this really the message you want to send out to Tampa Bay? Do you really want to start filling in open water? "
Editor's note: This story was updated June 22 with new information about the history of the Rocky Point cove.
Times Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.