As corps works to fix Glades, it approves golf course in it

Activists vow to fight Collier County project.

Published May 18, 2007

A controversial golf-course development that will wipe out more than 650 acres of wetlands in the western Everglades has been approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The proposed Mirasol development in Collier County has been criticized by officials in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who have expressed concerns over water pollution and the loss of wildlife habitat.

The top wood stork expert at the nearby Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary says development in that area could devastate the population of the endangered wading bird.

But the corps, which issues federal dredge-and-fill permits under the Clean Water Act, sent a letter last week announcing it would approve Mirasol anyway.

"At the end of the day we made a determination that Mirasol was not contrary to the public interest," David Hobbie, head of the regulatory division for the corps in Florida, said Thursday.

He acknowledged a possible conflict between approving wetlands destruction in the Everglades while the corps is spending billions of dollars to restore the Everglades.

"All we do is enforce the rules and regulations given to us by Congress," Hobbie said.

"It's a big step forward" for Mirasol, said Steve Walker, attorney for the developer, J.D. Nicewonder, a Virginia coal-mining magnate.

Environmental activists pledged on Thursday to fight the development in court.

"That's just a tremendous loss of wetlands," said Tom Reese, a St. Petersburg lawyer who has been challenging the project on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Collier County Audubon Society.

Since 1999 Nicewonder's company and family have given more than $50,000 to political candidates and causes, including the Republican National Committee and President Bush.

"The White House has engineered a biological train wreck in South Florida," said Ann Hauck of the Council of Civic Associations, who has been pushing for a congressional investigation of wetland losses in the western Everglades. "Campaign contributors have engineered immunity for themselves from the Endangered Species Act."

Nicewonder has been trying to get a dredge-and-fill permit from the corps since 2000. About 1,486 acres of the 1,714-acre project in Bonita Springs are wetlands that are habitat for wood storks and panthers.

Developers wiped out so many wetlands in the area that during a 1995 storm, 1,000 people were forced to evacuate because of flooding. State and federal taxpayers have since spent millions of dollars buying up homes and converting developed land back to wetlands.

Originally Nicewonder proposed building two 18-hole golf courses and nearly 800 homes on the site, wiping out 587 acres of swamps. His plans included a 3-mile-long, 200-foot-wide ditch to funnel stormwater around Mirasol's houses and three other Collier County developments.

EPA officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the ditch was likely to drain 2,000 more acres nearby, including the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an 11,000-acre Audubon Society preserve.

But U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and former U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel, helped push it along with letters and meetings involving federal agencies.

Still, in December 2005, the corps denied the permit application, concluding that Mirasol would cause "significant adverse impacts" to the state's wetlands as well to water quality and Everglades wildlife habitat.

Nicewonder retooled the plans. He dropped the ditch, but increased wetland impacts to 655 acres. The South Florida Water Management District still wants to build the ditch, but with taxpayer dollars.

To make up for the damage from Mirasol, Nicewonder has proposed preserving 830 acres of wetlands in the same area, removing exotic melaleuca trees from it to improve its functioning.

In letters sent to the corps in September and October, EPA officials said they still had major concerns about the revised Mirasol project. They reminded corps officials that federal rules say anything that doesn't have to be built near the water should be kept out of wetlands - and housing is not considered "water-dependent." The corps cited those regulations in its denial of the first version of Mirasol.

The Clean Water Act gives the EPA power to veto any wetlands dredge-and-fill permit issued by the corps. But the EPA has only used that power 11 times since the law was passed in 1972. The last time the EPA vetoed a permit was 18 years ago, during the first Bush administration.

Last month, the EPA waved the white flag on Mirasol. Regional EPA administrator James "Jimmy" Palmer told the corps that while his staff still believes Mirasol should not be given a permit, the agency will not pursue the matter.

Instead, Palmer wrote the corps, "I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the concerns raised by this project with you with the intent of avoiding these same issues on future projects."

Haynes Johnson, a longtime EPA employee who was working on the Mirasol review until his retirement, said EPA officials in Washington have made it clear they don't want to challenge corps permitting decisions, no matter how bad they may be for the environment.

However Jim Giattina, the EPA's wetlands chief in Atlanta, said the decision to end the Mirasol battle was his. He said he decided to give up when the Fish and Wildlife Service dropped its objections.

The wildlife agency, starting with the Mirasol development, has allowed developers to write their own biological opinion on what effect their project will have on endangered species, subject to agency approval.

The latest biological opinion says that the future of panthers and wood storks will actually be improved by Mirasol because Nicewonder will remove melaleuca in the preserved land.

But Jason Lauritsen, the wood stork biologist at Corkscrew Swamp, wrote to the corps to say the agency's science was off-base.

State and federal law requires wetlands to be protected because they provide flood protection, clean pollution, recharge drinking water and provide wildlife habitat. Between 1990 and 2003, about 84,000 acres of Florida wetlands were lost to development, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of satellite imagery.

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.