PERICO ISLAND -- The dispute over whether a state permit for Pat Neal's Harbor Sound subdivision should be nullified is going to mediation.
On Nov. 5, Fifth District Court of Appeal Judge William Palmer ordered attorneys representing Neal, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and a set of environmental groups to take their case before a court mediator. At issue is a permit that would allow Neal, chairman of Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities, to build a four-home subdivision on 3.46 acres on the shore of Anna Maria Sound.
The permit allows the development in exchange for a payment to a mitigation bank. The payment would go to improve wetlands in Hillsborough County, well north of the subdivision's Perico Island location.
To make enough room to build the homes, each measuring about 10,000 square feet, Neal needs to fill about an acre of mangrove wetlands. Several environmental groups have fought the project for more than a year, citing the value of the wetlands as species habitat and as protection from storm surge.
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The order comes about 45 days after Suncoast Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, Manasota-88 and former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, filed a notice of appeal challenging a water resource permit issued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud. The district's governing board approved the permit in August after board member and Bradenton developer Carlos Beruff made the motion for approval.
Ralf Brookes, a Cape Coral attorney representing the appellants, said he is pleased the Daytona Beach-based court is sending the issue to mediation.
The parties must choose a mediator and complete mediation within the next 45 days.
"Mediation is always worthwhile," Brookes said. "Alternative dispute resolution offers parties the ability to review issues and perhaps reduce the cost and uncertainty of litigation."
Neal said he is preparing for the mediation, but believes Swiftmud will be in the driver's seat when it comes to defending the issuance of the permit. He said the agency is bound by law to defend its regulatory scheme and the mitigation measures it assigns to project permits.
"I'm confident in the process and the rule of law and the facts," he said.
A day earlier, a three-judge panel with the court dealt Neal's legal team a setback by denying a request to transfer the appeal to the Second District Court of Appeal, which is based in Lakeland. Neal's attorneys had asked for the venue change, citing the Fifth District's distance from the site of the dispute.
Neal said the appellants filed in the distant court as part of a strategy to "frustrate and delay our process."
Brookes said the Fifth District is the proper court for the matter. Swiftmud's Brooksville headquarters is within the court's jurisdictional boundaries. Additionally, he said Swiftmud lists the court in its permit documents as the court to use in appealing an approved permit.
Although the permit is under appeal, Neal has begun site work on the upland portions of the property, which lies on the northwest shore of Perico Island. A land trust he controls owns about 40 acres at that location, much of which is wetlands. The homes are planned for family members.
Even as the Swiftmud permit remains at issue, Neal is waiting for word on a required federal permit being considered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.