Review of wording could alter agency tortoise permit

Published May 31, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - "All" won't stay "all" for long.

When the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission gives its approval for relocating gopher tortoises, the permit states that "captures/relocations may be undertaken only subsequent to all other permits for the project, which may be required by local, state and/or federal agencies being issued."

That one word - "all" - galvanized opponents of the proposed Cypress Creek Town Center.

On Tuesday, they blocked the mall's developer from moving up to 10 tortoises off the property before the bulldozers roll in.

The mall's critics said the developer didn't have all its permits lined up, and didn't count enough tortoises.

Now, wildlife commission officials say they are going to clarify what they meant.

"Everything that is required for approval needs to be in place, " said Gary Morse, commission spokesman. "Our intent is for state and federal permits to be in place, and local approval to start land clearing. We are going to look at changing the wording of the permit."

The standoff hinges on Pasco County permits.

On March 15, the Richard E. Jacobs Group got the county's green light for the mall's preliminary site plan, grading, drainage, roads and utilities. In January, it got the state permit. Two weeks ago, it got the federal permit.

But Pasco officials have not yet reviewed plans approved by other agencies, a task they described to the Pasco Times as a technical followup.

If the wildlife commission rewords its permits, then the Jacobs Group would have all it needs to move the tortoises.

The mall's critics hinted at legal action to stop the rewording.

"They should sit on this until they have all permits, " said Dan Rametta, of the Citizens for Sanity group. "If they let things slide, then we go to Plan B."

But Rametta was unsure what Plan B would be.

"I do all I can do, " Rametta said. "Then it gets legal. It's not up to me."

The Jacobs Group agreed Tuesday to hold off relocating the tortoises and did a recount of the animals Wednesday.

"We conducted a 100 percent resurvey of the Cypress Creek Town Center site today and confirmed our original estimate of 10 or less tortoises, " said Deanne Roberts, the mall's spokeswoman. "We found 33 burrows, both active and inactive, which is consistent with the last survey."

Rametta said his group found 50 active and inactive burrows on half the property.

The commission will now review the Jacobs Group's numbers against Rametta's data, Morse said. The wildlife commission and the developer were in talks Wednesday on how the Jacobs Group should proceed.

"Right now, we have no illegal action, " Morse said. "Until something illegal happens, we won't issue any citation or take anyone to court."

The Jacobs Group will have an agency officer accompany its consultants during the relocation, Roberts said.

"Each burrow will be excavated in the officer's presence to ensure the safety of every animal, " she said.

The tortoises will be moved to a 250-acre site in southeastern Pasco owned by the Jacobs Group, called the Alston Tract.

On Tuesday, Rametta compared the mall experience to a case in March 2007, when tortoises were removed prematurely from a Wal-Mart construction site in Tarpon Springs.

But Morse disputed the comparison.

"In the Wal-Mart case, we got a call from one of the city commissioners, who said Wal-Mart had no approval from the city to do that, " he said. "Here, we have indications from the county that the green light has been given."

In the Wal-Mart case, wildlife commission officials stepped in to block the tortoise relocation and sent the findings to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. Holly Grissinger, the assistant state attorney handling the case, did not reply to several requests for comment Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Clay Colson, of Citizens of Sanity, said the Jacobs Group "brought political pressure to bear" on the commission.

Morse dismissed the assertion.

"There's nothing extraordinary about this permit or this process, " he said. "What we've got in response is cooperation from the developer, who's agreed to put off the removal of the tortoises."

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.