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Commissioners oppose Pasco mall

Environmentalists hail the concern for wetlands threatened by the planned development. Others say the late stand is pointless.

Published March 23, 2005

TAMPA - Ever since Pasco County commissioners approved allowing a 1.3-million-square-foot mall to be built along sensitive wetlands that cleanse Tampa's drinking water, the downstream governments in Hillsborough County and Tampa have been reluctant to object.

Even though environmental groups complained the project could pollute and siphon off water Tampa residents drink, Hillsborough County and Tampa officials only wrote a couple of polite, single-page letters asking state officials to protect this resource - something Florida's state government is already required to do.

But on Tuesday, Hillsborough commissioners took a more active role, voting 5-2 to join the state in opposing the Cypress Creek Town Center project in Land O'Lakes, a shopping complex Pasco commissioners approved in November. Hillsborough County can now lend costly resources, like attorneys and water management experts, to the state's appeal of the mall plans.

Commissioner Kathy Castor, who became the highest-ranking Hillsborough official to show her displeasure with the mall when she complained about it two weeks ago, convinced the board Tuesday that it must act now.

"You bet the state of Florida will listen to us and probably act a lot more seriously in their settlement negotiations if we intervene on its side," Castor said during Tuesday's meeting. "This is a special area. We need to fight to protect it."

A Cleveland developer, Richard E. Jacobs Group, plans to build a mall with 100 stores and a multiscreen cinema on 100 acres at Interstate 75 and State Road 56, about a mile north of the Pasco-Hillsborough County border.

On Jan. 25, the state Department of Community Affairs filed an objection, saying the project was too intense for land bordered by wetlands that feed Trout and Cypress creeks, tributaries of the Hillsborough River.

As the water sifts through the wetlands, impurities are captured by the vegetation, cleaning the water. Flooding is also reduced, as wetlands hold rainfall for long periods.

Developers provided insufficient data and analysis to support the project, the DCA concluded.

Hillsborough Commissioners Jim Norman and Ken Hagan voted against joining the state's appeal because they said it was too late. The DCA has already filed its complaint, so the county can only advise on a legal stance the state has already taken.

"This is hogwash," Norman said. "We had a chance. You know what we did? We sent a letter that we would monitor the situation. ... Let's not rewrite history."

The state is scheduled to object to the plans at a May 17 hearing in Hudson. Being passive observers as the dispute unfolds wasn't enough, said Commissioner Tom Scott.

"I think we should do everything that we can so no one can come up later and say, "Oh, hey, the board sat on the sideline and didn't do anything,' " Scott said.

Biff Craine, an attorney representing the project, said Hillsborough's involvement means little to the mall, which is still planning to open in October 2007. He said it's likely the case will be settled before the May 17 hearing anyway.

"I'm surprised the county wants a seat at the table when nothing is going to occur," Craine said. "Politically, it makes sense what they did because it looks like they're doing something. But this doesn't do much."

Many of the project's differences with DCA have already been settled, said Pasco's assistant attorney, David Goldstein. The remaining sticking points deal with wetlands, 56 acres of which the mall would destroy.

Hillsborough will merely be limited to rehashing arguments DCA has already introduced, Goldstein said.

"I'm not sure how much this is going to accomplish," Goldstein said of Hillsborough's move.

Pasco County Commissioner Steve Simon suggested Hillsborough was operating from mixed motives, in particular a desire to prop up Tampa's University Mall 10 miles away. Cypress Creek Town Center is sure to take customers - and anchor stores - from University.

"The need for a mall is there. The need needs to be filled," Simon said in support of building a new Pasco mall.

But the Sierra Club called Tuesday's vote a bold move that will help protect sensitive lands.

"It's great," said Deborah Cope, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Tampa Bay Group. "If the county didn't do this, that would in effect tell the state that the local governments here didn't care about water quality."

Cope said the Sierra Club is considering joining the appeal.

Ralf Brookes, a Cape Coral lawyer representing some Land O'Lakes residents who are protesting the mall plans, said the Tuesday vote was a major victory for environmentalists.

"I'm delighted to hear that the county is intervening," Brookes said. "As we build out the Tampa area, we need to make sure we're set back far enough from creeks and swamps and we aren't destroying the sources of the water we drink."

Times staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 23, 2005, 00:54:07]

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