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Swiftmud board member says he has no conflict in approving permit for friend

TAMPA — Former state Sen. Pat Neal has built thousands of homes in Manatee County for other people, and now he wants to build four more for his family.

The place where he wants to build them is a mangrove-covered spot on the water. To make the development work, Neal wants to wipe out an acre of high-quality wetlands, which has drawn objections from local fishing and environmental groups.

When the Southwest Florida Water Management District approved Neal's permit to chop down the mangroves and fill in the wetlands, the groups challenged that decision in the state's administrative hearing process — and won. A judge ruled that the permit should be denied.

But on Tuesday, the board commonly known as Swiftmud rejected that recommendation. The board member who made the motion was Carlos Beruff, another Manatee County home builder who has done business with Neal in the past.

"He's a friend of long standing," said Neal, chairman of the Sarasota-based Neal Communities and a potential candidate for Florida chief financial officer.

Beruff confirmed that, but said his vote on Neal's permit wasn't a conflict of interest.

"I have no interest in the property that came before us," Beruff said after the vote. He said he made the motion because it was recommended by the Swiftmud staff, not because of his friendship.

The opponents, who include former Manatee commissioners Joe McClash and Jane Von Hahmann, vowed to appeal. They fear Neal's project will set a precedent for other waterfront developments — including one that Beruff has been pursuing for several years. Beruff's Long Bar Pointe project would put homes, condos, a hotel, a conference center, offices and stores on a 463-acre site on Sarasota Bay.

When asked if the approval of Neal's project would pave the way for approving his own project, Beruff said, "I don't want to comment on that."

Beruff, who owns Medallion Homes of Parrish, was appointed to the water district board in 2009 by former Gov. Charlie Crist and reappointed by Gov. Rick Scott, who also this year appointed him chairman of his Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding. He and Neal both donated to Scott and served on Scott's transition team.

The most debated part of Neal's project is how he's making up for the damage he is going to do to the wetlands. Neal said he would buy credits from the Tampa Bay Mitigation Bank, which is on Cockroach Bay in Ruskin.

Opponents complained that the mitigation site that's 16 miles away fails to make up for damage that would be done on Neal's property on Anna Maria Sound in Manatee County. The administrative law judge agreed.

But Neal's attorney, Doug Mason, and attorneys for Swiftmud convinced the Swiftmud board that the judge was mistaken.

Mitigation banking is a little-known industry worth big bucks. A bank is supposed to work like this: A would-be banker buys land that used to be a swamp and restores the wetlands. Regulators then calculate how many "credits" the banker has earned.

The banker can sell those credits to developers such as Neal who need to make up for filling in a marsh or a swamp. Credits in Florida have sold for as much as $100,000 each.

The Tampa Bay Mitigation Bank, formerly a shell mine for builders, is the only one approved for this region, and "it's the hottest thing since sliced bread," said part-owner William Casey. He has a mix of mangroves, saltwater marsh and freshwater marsh on his 160-acre site.

Neal faces still more opposition in seeking a federal wetlands destruction permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project has so far drawn objections from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which contains material from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Bradenton Herald. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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