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Pasco County again to seek SunWest dredge permit

Published Apr. 14, 2016

Pasco County is again trying to dig a deeper channel from SunWest Park in Aripeka to the Gulf of Mexico.

The renewed permit application, financed by Gary Grubbs, owner of the adjoining property targeted for an upscale resort and housing development, comes 18 months after the Army Corps of Engineers rejected an earlier dredging application for a second time.

This time, said consultant Larry Evans of BC Peabody, the county will seek authorization for a shallower, shorter and realigned channel. The smaller channel, which would be 60 feet wide at the bottom, should damage up to 45 percent less of the sea grass that is present, he said.

The county opened its privately operated SunWest Park last summer, minus the planned seven boat ramps to provide the boating public access to the gulf. A deeper channel is a public-need project, Evans told commissioners, because of the dearth of saltwater boat ramps in the vicinity.

Commissioners agreed.

"I think the project is needed,'' said Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. "On the west side of the county, there isn't a lot of access for boats.''

Left unsaid by Evans and the commission was that a deeper channel is expected to increase the value of Grubbs' property, currently an active lime rock mine that is slated to become SunWest Harbourtowne. Plans call for the 1,076-acre development to include 2,500 homes, 250 hotel rooms, 300,000 square feet of space for stores and offices, 400 boat slips and an 18-hole golf course.

Its biggest supporters view the project as the cornerstone to redeveloping west Pasco's aging commercial buildings and residential housing stock. Environmentalists, however, have a different view, particularly because there was no advance public notice of the renewed permit application. It did not appear on the commission's published agenda and was taken up as an emergency item Tuesday afternoon.

"This is just another one of the underhanded tricks they've tried to get this unneeded development back on track, and I am at a loss why the county commissioners, which now have their park, are interested in revising a project that only helps the developer,'' Mac Davis of Aripeka, president of the Gulf Coast Conservancy, said when told of the renewed permit application.

The conservancy was one of several environmental groups that objected to the first application, citing damage to sea grass, potential effects on near-shore flats fisheries and other concerns.

But, on Tuesday, commissioners unanimously approved allowing County Administrator Michele Baker to sign the permit application. Obtaining the permit would provide the county "an option to do work if you choose to. How it's paid for, who does the work, is within your control,'' Evans told commissioners.

Nine years ago, BC Peabody estimated the dredge costs for the 2.5-mile-long channel at $6 million. Evans said the shallower, shorter channel should reduce construction expenses and eliminate the need for some maintenance dredging.

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Baker, however, noted that Grubbs is responsible for design, permitting, construction and mitigation.

"He is writing the checks on the county's behalf,'' she said.

Grubbs has listed the property for sale previously and is not expected to be the actual developer. His company, Sun West Acquisition, is tardy on its Pasco County property taxes that were due April 1, and the Tampa Bay Times reported in January that Grubbs faced federal tax liens from the Internal Revenue Service for more than $2.3 million in unpaid taxes due from 2008 to 2010.