TAMPA -- The Southwest Florida Water Management District's governing board has turned aside a judge's order, approving a permit to allow developer Pat Neal's four-home subdivision to be built where shoreline wetlands exist.
The district board, led by a motion from local developer Carlos Beruff, considered about 90 minutes of testimony Tuesday morning from project supporters and detractors before voting 10-1 to allow Neal to build his waterfront compound on Perico Island. Wendy Griffin, a retired environmental consultant who serves on the SWFWMD board, was the only dissenter. Michael Babb is the board chair.
The action comes two months after administrative law Judge Bram Canter recommended SWFWMD deny an environmental resource permit requested by the Lakewood Ranch home builder. Neal still needs federal permission to build.
The SWFWMD permit will allow Neal to build a seawall and fill about an acre of wetlands within a 3.46-acre piece of 40 acres he owns on the western shore of Perico Island. Those structures, plus a planned underground stormwater management system, would make room for four 10,000-square-foot homes. The development, named Harbor Sound, is intended to be a compound for the Neal family.
Neal, on hand for the decision, said the board decision puts an emphasis on highly regulated, offsite environmental mitigation.
"The board's decision proved the judge misunderstood how mitigation is done in Florida," he said. "They believe and I believe that offsite mitigation is safer and provides more habitat and water quality."
Four federal agencies -- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- have recommended the permit be denied. The city of Bradenton has approved the subdivision site plan. The Corps is still considering a federal permit required to allow Harbor Sound to move ahead.
In his final order in June, Canter said insufficient mitigation for the proposed destruction of wetlands was included in the permit requirements. Much of the mitigation will be done in the form of credits purchased to fund the Tampa Bay Mitigation Bank. The bank uses the money to restore and enhance wetlands near the mouth of the Little Manatee River.
Several local groups, including environmental watchdogs Manasota-88, The Sierra Club, Suncoast Waterkeeper and FISH, were all party to a hearing in June during which Canter took testimony that led to his recommendation.
Joe McClash, a former Manatee County commissioner, led the opposition to the Neal permit. McClash had previously raised his objections to Harbor Sound with Bradenton city officials.
He said the watchdog groups will likely appeal SWFWMD's decision in court because he believes the board glossed over Canter's findings of fact.
"When you have findings of fact by a judge, you can't just ignore them," McClash said. "We're pretty optimistic that an appeal would be successful."
Glenn Compton, Manasota 88 chairman, said SWFWMD's decision calls into question whether environmental groups working through the permit appeals and legal system will be able to successfully challenge permits submitted in the future by "wealthy developers." In the case of Harbor Sound, he said SWFWMD passed over long-standing science showing it is best to avoid destroying existing wetlands.
"We're really in a sad state of affairs when an agency issues permits that are in clear violation of its rules," he said.
SWFWMD announced its intent to issue an environmental resource permit for Harbor Sound one year ago.
Beruff made the motion to approve the permit. Beruff is a Manatee County homebuilder and president of Medallion Home. Two years ago, he was on the losing end of an environmental argument when the Manatee County Board of Commissioners blocked his Long Bar Pointe subdivision. The 463-acre proposed shoreline development near IMG Academy in southwest Manatee was originally planned to contain several thousand homes.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.