Moving at a tortoise's pace

Critics' complaints delay the relocation of gopher tortoises from Cypress Creek mall.

Published May 30, 2007

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided not to stop a megamall from going up in Wesley Chapel. But some gopher tortoises might slow it down.

The developer of the Cypress Creek Town Center agreed Tuesday to delay today's planned relocation of up to 10 tortoises after critics complained not enough of the protected animals were accounted for.

Instead, a new assessment of their numbers at the 500-acre site at State Road 56 and Interstate 75 will be done today by a consultant for the developer, and possibly critics, too.

The state will review the findings, and determine whether changes need to be made. A spokeswoman for the developer, the Richard E. Jacobs Group, said they hope to minimize delays for the project. Construction is due to begin next week.

"In an abundance of caution, we're going to conduct a 100 percent survey on the site," spokeswoman Deanne Roberts said.

Developers need a state permit before any gopher tortoises can be removed. In this case, they will go to another part of the county set aside for relocations.

That permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission comes with a catch. Relocations can start "only subsequent to all other permits for the project, which may be required by local, state and/or federal agencies being issued."

But in this case, all did not mean all - triggering another spat. All meant almost three, and no building permits required.

"All permits doesn't mean some permits," countered Dan Rametta of Citizens for Sanity, which complained. "It means all."

He also compared it with a case of tortoises being removed prematurely at a Wal-Mart construction site in Tarpon Springs.

On March 23, Fish and Wildlife officers ordered eight tortoises off a relocation truck. Wal-Mart and its consultant had rounded up the animals before all necessary permits were issued. The actions have been sent to state prosecutors to review.

But late Tuesday afternoon, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gary Morse said permits by the Army Corps, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and a preliminary nod by Pasco County satisfied the agency on the mall's status.

The county still has to review plans approved by other agencies, a technical task that leaves a site-development permit very close to being issued, Pasco development director Cindy Jolly said.

Morse said later that each project has its own plans and requires different permits.

"Even though they don't have all the permits, they have all the permits that are required to satisfy us," Morse said.

It was a lot bigger task to Morse earlier in the day, though.

"It means every building permit, every sewer and water permit. Every site permit - everything," Morse said at midday.

Roberts also noted the mall was approved as a development of regional impact, unlike the Wal-Mart. That makes the permitting different, too.

Not to opponents.

"There is clearly an indication they brought political pressure to bear on the FWC," said Clay Colson, a member of Citizens for Sanity.

It's uncertain whether any delay will be long. Morse said there was no time line for taking and reviewing the new assessments.

Senior ecologist Lee Walton of Biological Research Associates of Tampa, which is overseeing the tortoise relocation, said no construction would be delayed. Instead, permits could be amended easily to reflect more tortoises, pushing back the relocation schedule.

Initial construction could also skirt the tortoise habitats.

Expressing confidence in his count, Walton said his firm has done annual surveys of the mall site the past three years. But Rametta said his group counted nearly 50 potential burrows on only half the property.

Jacobs officials have said the mall, one of Tampa Bay's largest at 1.3-million square feet, should open in 2008.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or 727 869-6232.