PERICO ISLAND -- Two days before he's scheduled to go to court mediation over a wetland filling project, Pat Neal stood on a silty shoreline clearing to watch the first pieces of storm sewer pipe go into the ground at his newest, smallest and perhaps most controversial housing development.
The construction is the first stage of work at Harbor Sound, a four-home subdivision that Neal, chairman of Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities, is building for members of his family.
Under challenge for nearly a year, the project has raised the ire of local environmental groups because it includes about an acre of shore wetlands Neal wants to fill for the homes he plans to build. Those groups, which include Suncoast Waterkeeper, Sierra Club, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage and Manasota-88, have lined up to oppose a Southwest Florida Water Management District permit that will allow that filling to happen. Former Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash has headed the effort.
Even though that permit is now in dispute and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to sign off on a second permit required to do the work, Neal is starting construction. He said he does not believe he will be denied permission to do the wetland work.
"I feel, ultimately, we will prevail," he said Monday. "If need be, we'll go to the highest court that has jurisdiction."
Perched on a 3.46-acre slice of uplands that is part of a largely swampy 40-acre property, Harbor Sound has been portrayed by its detractors as pushing the envelope of shoreline development. While its landward side will be just yards from Minto Communities' massive Harbour Isle subdivision to the east, the compound's water side would be a bit short of space if the wetland isn't filled. Each home is expected to measure in the 10,000-square-foot range.
Neal began clearing the uplands in early autumn. When the storm sewer crew went to work there Monday, they did it on a clear plot of exposed soil that undulates north and south at the edge of Harbour Isle. A grassy ditch defines the east edge of the property, while the west edge drops off into thickets of mangroves standing in shallow water. Silt fences and sod installed along the down slope are there to stop silt-laden rain water from fouling the clear tidal waters just feet from where tractors roll up and down the construction site.
Neal said the wetland work he plans to do will simply fill a low spot between the major portion of his near-shore uplands and more uplands near the water. Initially, he had planned to fill 1.05 acres of wetlands. He said he has revised that down to .72 acre in his permit request to the Army Corps.
His Swiftmud permit requires that the loss of wetlands and the mangroves in them be mitigated. Neal said he has paid for mitigation credits that will be applied to restoring and maintaining other wetlands in Hillsborough County.
Harbor Sound opponents contend that the Swiftmud permit and the distant mitigation site fly in the face of state shoreline development regulations. Early last summer, they convinced an administrative court judge to recommend that the permit be denied. Members of Swiftmud's governing board, however, voted 9-1 to approve it.
McClash and attorneys representing the groups later filed suit in the Fifth District Court of Appeals to invalidate the permit. In November, a judge with the court ordered Swiftmud and the environmental groups to take their challenge to mediation.
Justin Bloom, an attorney representing Suncoast Waterkeeper, said he does not know if there is room for compromise on the issue. His objective is to turn the permit aside because, in his view, it fails to protect shoreline habitat.
"It's not that we're against waterfront development per se, we just want it done correctly," Bloom said.
Swiftmud's general counsel has yet to comment on the suit or the mediation. Susanna Martinez Tarokh, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the general counsel does not comment on current litigation.
McClash, who has criticized the city of Bradenton for approving Neal's site plan, has echoed that point, saying that Neal should be able to build on his land, but should build fewer houses to avoid wetland impacts.
Wednesday's mediation will take place in Daytona Beach.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.