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Project's approval tainted by facts

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© St. Petersburg Times
published June 30, 2002

Facts can be so inconvenient. Don't you just hate it when they get in the way of a decision?

A state environmental agency has found itself in that uncomfortable position after discovering that the approval it gave for the controversial Halls River Retreat condo project was based on incorrect information supplied by the developer's representatives.

Darn those facts!

The approval from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was important because, tied in with permits from the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers, it formed a wall of support for the project by the state's key environmental agencies.

That support, in turn, gave cover to the three county commissioners who rejected the wishes of thousands of constituents by approving the project earlier this year. How can the ignorant masses say the condos are bad for the environment, they said, when the regulatory agencies have given their approval?

Now, the truth finally is starting to emerge.

It turns out the Fish and Wildlife commission approved the project based on the developer's engineering drawings. Everything looked fine on paper. Then, at the insistence of the ignorant masses, who live near the site and know the truth, they actually looked at the property.

Horrors! The developer was wrong!

I'll leave it to others to determine if the misinformation was merely professional incompetence or intentionally misleading. Either way, the drawings of the canal on the property were wrong and the agency withdrew its support, noting that the project would violate the county's Manatee Protection Plan.

Chalk one up for the ignorant masses, who are hoping that this action sets off a ripple effect with the other regulatory agencies. They may well get their wish.

Swiftmud already is planning to send someone to see if another of the issues raised by the opponents, that the project would ruin the aquifer, has merit. Swiftmud wants at least 2 feet of dirt separating the surface from the water table, and the opponents say the water table is much closer than that.

Once again, an agency that already has approved the project is back doing fieldwork. Again, this is being done at the insistence of residents, not the three county commissioners, who obviously would rather not know the truth.

The state Department of Community Affairs, having already said it has no interest in intervening in what it feels is a local matter, is starting to ask questions. It has requested information about the site, which is in a flood plain, where the county is supposed to limit growth. It's a good bet that those darn facts will get in the way again.

The truth has been seeping out in other ways as well.

Opponents of the project have complained from the start about the site's mixed-use land designation, a hybrid label that allowed a large-scale development in an environmentally sensitive area.

County officials agreed that there were problems, but they felt it was unfair to the developer to make the necessary changes at that time. The changes should have been made in 1997, when the state ordered them to do so, but they weren't and that's the residents' tough luck.

Now that this project has been approved, however, the county has revised the mixed-use language. Kind of like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

During the weeks leading up to the commissioners' vote on the project, several of them insisted that they could not talk about the case because their hearing was a "quasijudicial proceeding" and they were bound to strict secrecy rules. The rules, of course, were not as strict as some commissioners portrayed. They could have listened to the public, as long as they disclosed all of the information they had gathered.

That would have meant actually listening to the opponents, who were dismissed at the public hearing as offering mere opinions on the matter and not facts. Those "opinions" were accompanied by binders full of official county and state documents, presumably facts prepared by professionals, but they were rejected nonetheless by the majority of the commissioners.

In the coming weeks, the commission will hear a proposal from its legal staff to fine-tune its rules to mirror the state statutes governing such proceedings. In the future, commissioners won't be able to hide behind the quasijudicial veil when they don't want to listen to the public.

The steps by the county are too late to help the opponents of the Halls River retreat project, but they're still welcome.

They will make it much more difficult for future commissioners to say, as this one has, our minds are made up, don't confuse us with facts.

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