Three judges with the Fifth District Court of Appeal heard oral arguments Thursday in an appeal to a decision made by the Southwest Florida Water Management District to give Manatee County developer Pat Neal a permit to fill in about one acre of wetlands on his Harbor Sound property on Perico Island.
Neal, head of Neal Communities, said he is confident that the judges will be on his side.
“I think there’s a good chance the argument will be dismissed,” said Neal, who controls the land trust that applied for the permit.
The long story began when in 2014 when the water district approved a permit for Neal to permanently impact 1.05 acres of the 1.9 acres of wetlands near the four-home compound project intended for his family members.
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Critics thought this would set a standard for more mangroves and wetlands to be destroyed, so it was put up for an administrative hearing during which Judge Bram Canter advised that the permit be denied in 2015.
The Southwest Florida Water Management District’s governing board, which included fellow Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff of Medallion Home, voted 10-1 to keep the permit and let Neal build the compound. Beruff resigned from the board the next day, citing “other responsibilities.”
On Thursday, Fifth District appellate court judges Wendy Berger, Kerry Evander and Bruce Jacobus heard oral arguments regarding the case between former Manatee County Commissioner Joseph McClash and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Attorney Ralf Brookes, representing petitioner McClash, argued McClash would be significantly affected by the wetland destruction because he and many others fish and enjoy viewing wildlife in the area. Environmental groups including ManaSota-88, Sierra Club, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage and Suncoast Waterkeeper were listed on the petition as well, but Brookes said the best way to achieve standing in a case would be to have an individual although all parties involved have the same agenda.
He also argued in court that the wetlands that would be impacted would be mitigated through the Tampa Bay Mitigation Bank in Cockroach Bay, and anglers would have to travel 17 miles just to enjoy the offset.
For the district’s side, attorneys Bill Bilenky and Amy Wells Brennan argued that the mitigation followed the district’s guidelines and asked the judges to dismiss the appeal for a lack of standing.
Brookes was also confident that the oral argument went well.
“They understood our arguments and asked good questions,” he said.
Neal is still waiting on a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers after he was required to minimize the alteration to the wetlands, but he said he has completed construction on the upland portion of the project. The developer claimed that the environmentalists’ best strategy is to delay, but it’s typical for the permitting process.
“It just comes with the territory,” he said.