PERICO ISLAND -- An administrative law judge has struck the biggest blow yet against a four-home neighborhood Manatee County's biggest homebuilder is proposing to develop on shoreline wetlands.
On Thursday, Judge Bram Canter recommended a state water resource permit for the Harbour Sound project be denied. The decision comes four months after environmental groups and a former county commissioner challenged Pat Neal's plan to fill
about an acre of wetlands and cut back mangroves to make room for a family compound of 10,000-square-foot homes.
Neal said he plans to dispute the order and pursue his development.
Former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash, who brought the petition opposing the proposed permit, said he believes the recommendation will compel the Southwest Florida Water Management District to deny the permit.
"The significance of Judge Canter's recommended order is that it should be a dead project," said McClash, who was joined in the action by the Sierra Club, Manasota-88, Suncoast Waterkeeper and FISH.
SWFMUD gave notice of its intent to issue a permit for the project earlier this summer. The permit would allow Neal to build a seawall and fill a 3.46 acre wetland within 40 acres the builder owns on the western shore of Perico Island. Those structures plus a planned underground stormwater management system would allow for construction of concrete pads on which homes could be built.
The city of Bradenton has already approved a site plan for Harbour Sound.
Canter's ruling comes months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all recommended denial.
Also opposing the project is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which this spring recommended denial of a separate Corps permit to allow Neal to fill the wetland. The Corps left a glimmer of hope for the project, suggesting Neal modify his plan to better comply with water and shoreline protection rules. Neal said he planned to submit a new proposal to the Corps.
SWFMD will now evaluate Neal's permit considering the findings Canter wrote in a 27-page decision.
Susanna Martinez Tarokh, spokeswoman for SWFMUD, said the parties have 15 days to file exceptions to the ruling. They have 10 days after that to file responses to exceptions.
SWFMD's 13-member governing board will issue a final order on the water resource permit within 90 days. The board is comprised of appointees from the citrus, cattle, homebuilding, mining, retail and legal industries. One board member is an environmental specialist. The lone Manatee County representative is Medallion Home President Carlos Beruff.
Canter takes both sides to task. He found methodology lacking on wetlands impact brought by the petitioners and said they failed to prove Neal's proposed stormwater management system could not comply with water quality criteria.
He was harder on Neal's project. Cantor likened Harbour Sound to "the kind of project that was common in the 1960s and 1970s in Florida, before the enactment of environmental regulatory programs, when high-quality wetlands were destroyed by dredging and filling to create land for residential development."
He also said Neal's plan to offset negative water quality impacts of his project by buying credits from the Tampa Bay Mitigation Bank would not necessarily make up for the damage his project would do. He asserts a cash-for-wetlands trade is not supported by case law.
"No case could be found where an applicant simply paid for authorization to destroy almost an acre of high-quality wetlands and convert it to uplands," Cantor wrote.
Neal disputes this point and said he will continue to pursue a permit for Harbour Sound.
"I believe the judge made an error interpreting the law on mitigation," he said. "We respect this process and we are going to follow the process."
McClash said he believes Cantor's decision will have long-reaching implications for other waterfront housing developments. He cited Medallion Home's proposed Long Bar Pointe development in West Manatee, which could affect considerably more wetlands and mangroves than Neal's project.
Long Bar Pointe received county approval in January to form a community development district. The project drew the ire of the public in 2013 when initial plans called for more than 3,500 dwelling units. The proposal has since been pared down to 1,400 homes.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.