Environmentalists who opposed a 4-mile channel at the proposed SunWest park in northwest Pasco County scored a victory Friday when federal regulators denied the county's request for a dredging permit.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told county officials that the project was not in the public interest and that the county failed to show there were no "practicable" alternatives that would have been less damaging to the environment.
Other factors the corps said it considered included conservation, economics, general environmental concerns, wetlands, fish and wildlife values, flood hazards, navigation, recreation, water quality and safety.
The corps also mentioned that since 2008 it has received about 9,000 individual emails and two group petition emails consisting of approximately 40,000 signatures requesting denial of the project. Opponents included the National Marine Fisheries Service, Center for Biological Diversity, Gulf Coast Conservancy, Save the Manatee Club, Sierra Club of Florida, Florida Wildlife Federation and Gulf Restoration Network.
"The mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Regulatory program is to protect the nation's aquatic resources, while allowing reasonable development through fair, flexible and balanced permit decisions," Kevin O'Kane, chief of the Tampa Regulatory Office, said in a news release. "We are confident that our decision is based on sound science and a comprehensive, thorough review of potential impacts, including cumulative impacts, of the proposed project on the public's interest."
The county had high hopes for the park, which is adjacent to a proposed 2,500-home luxury development called SunWest Harbourtowne. The county park would provide access to the Gulf of Mexico via seven boat ramps and 250 boat parking spaces.
Plans also called for a pair of man-made beaches on a lake near the gulf and a cable-based course that allows people to wakeboard without using a boat.
"I'd like to think the fat lady has sung," said Mac Davis, president of Gulf Coast Conservancy. "But I don't think the developer is going to go away."
Opponents have accused the county of seeking the canal to benefit the developers and future residents of Sunwest Harbourtowne at the expense of the environment.
The decision was "absolutely the right outcome for Florida," said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
"Thanks to the hard, honest work of dedicated scientists and government employees, Fillman's Bayou will remain the prized gem of Pasco County, and dolphins and manatees will continue to thrive in its waters," she said.
The denial came as a complete surprise to county officials.
In May 2012, the corps sent a letter saying it was leaning against issuing a permit. In September, the county responded with changes to the proposal in hopes of winning over regulators.
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• Narrowing the channel's bottom width from 65 feet to 60 feet, as corps officials suggested.
•Setting aside nearly 1,000 acres of "sea grass protection zones" to help offset the sea grass that would be damaged by the project. Motorized boats would be prohibited from crossing the protected sea grass beds. The proposal would offset the 4 to 5 acres of damage that corps officials told the county to address.
County officials say they can still build the park and will seek the dredging permit later.
"We're moving on," said County Commissioner Jack Mariano, whose district includes the proposed park. "The good news is we can create twice as many beaches."
He said he hopes to have the park open by next spring.
SunWest officials did not return a call for comment. Chief Deputy County Administrator Michele Baker said she had not read the corps' report but that staff had already been looking at ways to redesign the park in anticipation of a possible denial. The county has 60 days to appeal the denial.