PERICO ISLAND -- A coalition of environmental groups will appeal a state permit that would allow homebuilder Pat Neal to construct a small subdivision of large homes on mangrove wetland shoreline here.
Suncoast Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, Manasota-88 and former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, filed a notice of appeal challenging the permit issued Aug. 26 by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The appeal is expected to ask the court to reverse Swiftmud's decision.
The permit is one of two that Neal needs to build Harbor Sound, a four-home neighborhood for his family on Perico Island's shores of Anna Maria Sound. About an acre of wetlands would be filled to accommodate construction.
In the meantime, Neal has
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already started site work on uplands at the 4-acre construction site that are not affected by the Swiftmud permit. Neal has said he will protect the wetlands at the site until he is issued the last permit he needs. The Army Corps of Engineers is still evaluating a federal shoreline permit request for Harbor Sound.
McClash, who has led opposition to the project for the past year, alleges that Swiftmud's action was illegal. Swiftmud's board of commissioners approved the permit in a 10-1 vote two months after an administrative law judge recommended the permit be denied.
"We feel we have a strong case that Swiftmud did not follow the law," McClash said "They changed findings of fact and produced different conclusions of law."
It will likely be at least 60 days until the groups submit a brief to the court containing the substantive issues.
While all legal action concerning Harbor Sound has taken place so far in Manatee County or the Tampa area, the Fifth District Court of Appeals is located in Daytona Beach. Justin Bloom, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper, said the filing went to the more distant court because Swiftmud's Brooksville headquarters are within the Fifth District.
But Neal said the move forces attorneys defending the Swiftmud decision to make lengthy drives to attend court proceedings.
"Our team has never litigated in Daytona Beach," he said "We think they have taken the step to frustrate and delay our process."
Neal still believes Swiftmud will win the appeal, however. The action will delay Harbor Sound, Neal said, but will not stop it.
The appellants have their own challenges. Bloom said going to court could be a financial stretch for the groups bringing the appeal. But he said the environmental coalition wants to stop the permit so it cannot be used to set a precedent for similar projects.
"It could be expensive and it could go beyond the district court of appeals," he said. "We don't bring the coffers and firepower that Mr. Neal has."
Ralf Brookes, an attorney with the Sierra Club, will lead the appeal for the environmental groups, Bloom said.
Harbor Sound may also get more scrutiny at the local level. Bradenton's city attorney, Bill Lisch, is determining whether the city's issuance of a site plan for the project last year should be reviewed. McClash has repeatedly asked the city for the review, saying the site plan was considered under the wrong zoning designation. City planning officials have stated that the proper zoning was applied to the project.
In all, Neal owns about 40 acres along the northwest shore of Perico Island. The land is adjacent to the Harbour Isle subdivision Minto Communities is building. Neal plans to build four homes measuring about 10,000 square feet each. The homes are being built for family members, he said.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.