State land swap for Skyway project looks good

While environmentalists express concern about a proposed development on the outskirts of the pristine Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, project opponents should consider the potential alternative -- a more expansive venture on nearby private land the state has sought to preserve for years. But this need not be a case of pick your ecological poison.

The two principals of the proposed Skyway Preserve development profess an environmental sensitivity in their plans to construct a resort hotel, marina, public boat launch, marine institute, residences, restaurants, shops and entertainment venues along the southern causeway of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Both are native Floridians. One, Brightman Logan, established his career in habitat restoration and native plant nurseries.

The other, Bill Blanchard, is a rancher, hunter and fisherman with a passion for the outdoors like Logan. Blanchard partnered with the state to create conservation easements on his Pasco County ranch.

In a meeting with the Herald's Editorial Board, both talked about building a environmentally sensitive project in an area already disturbed by the dredging of sand for bridge construction and lacking in sea grasses.

The parcel straddles the causeway along the exit ramp that provides access to the southern fishing pier and highway rest area. Utilities already exist there, a plus.

Since the state owns that property, the developers are proposing a swap -- almost 1,000 acres of their nearby property for 77 acres of state land.

The primary public benefit would be a park on the 663-acre Rattlesnake Key, long desired by the state.

The developers already hold development rights to a third of their acreage, including vested dredging and fill approvals on submerged land that is home to abundant aquatic life and sea grasses -- a terrible fate for the environment there. Rattlesnake Key's 65 acres of uplands would be the prime target for development, should that ever occur.

But should the state agree to a land swap, the island would serve as a buffer between Skyway Preserve and the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve -- a better outcome for ecological preservation.

As owners and operators of the Nina Griffith Washburn Sanctuary, Audubon of Florida indicated concern about development in the area in a Sunday report by Herald writer Sara Kennedy.

Some 500 pairs of birds representing 15 species nest at the sanctuary, a 14-acre mangrove island, feeding on the fish and sea grasses in the pristine waters.

But Skyway Preserve's plans do not include disturbing those waters, only the area near the bridge already impacted by construction and dredging. Indeed, development of Rattlesnake Key would be more detrimental to the close-by bird rookery.

Blanchard and Logan are redesigning the 1,000-acre project, already years in the making. They've even reached out to environmental organizations, addressing Manasota-88 two weeks ago.

The group's chairman, Glenn Compton, is keeping an open mind, telling Kennedy after the meeting: "This is all conceptual, and we'll have to wait and see what they're proposing."

We agree.

The developers expect to finalize plans within six months before pursuing negotiations with the state. By steering an environmentally friendly course to date, Blanchard and Logan deserve all due consideration. At this stage, the land swap with the state looks like a positive arrangement.

Another consideration is the economic potential, with Manatee County benefitting from job creation and tax revenue. Public boat launches and the development's other amenities would attract visitors.

We look forward to reviewing the final blueprints.