Groups opposing a housing development planned along the mangrove-populated Manatee County shoreline have filed their objections with the Fifth District Court of Appeal.
The brief helps pave the way for a court showdown between environmentalists and one of the state's powerful water resource districts over state environmental mitigation rules.
ManaSota-88, Sierra Club, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage, Suncoast Waterkeeper and former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash are challenging a state permit issued last August that allows the filling of about an acre of Perico Island mangrove wetlands owned by Lakewood Ranch homebuilder Pat Neal. The work would make room for a four-home subdivision named Harbor Sound that Neal plans to construct on 3.46 acres of shoreline.
Neal has stated that he owns mitigation credits that offset damage done to wetland habitat at the proposed construction site. The plaintiffs in the case assert that mitigation will not make up for environmental damage done at the building site.
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The Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, issued the permit last August over an administrative law judge's findings of fact and conclusions of law. That judge, Bram Canter, recommended that the permit be denied. It was approved on a 10-1 vote.
Responding to the brief, Neal said he found it to be "opaque" and based largely on testimony plaintiff's witnesses gave to Canter last year. He said the Harbor Sound project meets the state's standards for mitigation by providing for higher quality habitat than that which exists at the proposed building site.
The plaintiffs' legal action, he said, "misses the point" because it is based largely on the testimony of their own witnesses before Canter. He expects that it will delay construction of homes for months.
"What this is really about is the environmental appellants are just trying to stall the development process," Neal said.
Cape Coral attorney Ralf Brookes submitted a brief summarizing his clients' position to the Lakeland court on May 2. The groups filed a notice of appeal over the permit last September.
In the brief, Brookes makes the case that Swiftmud's governing board circumvented the judge's recommendations by changing his findings and conclusions. He writes that the board "improperly re-weighed the evidence in the record and changed findings of fact to allow it to change the conclusions of law."
Commenting on the submission this week, Brookes said the brief is one of an expected number of exchanges between his side, Swiftmud and the case's other defendant, property owner Land Trust 97-12. The trust is controlled by Neal.
The court made an attempt last year to avoid a trial. In mid-December, attorneys from both sides met in court-ordered mediation. The session did not achieve an outcome, triggering the need for a court date.
Neal said he is building the subdivision as a housing compound for members of his family. Each of the four homes is planned to measure about 10,000 square feet.
The uplands and wetlands he intends to develop are part of a 40-acre property on the western shore of Perico Island. Neal has completed stormwater system construction and other site work on the uplands portion of the Harbor Sound site.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.