Gopher tortoises to be moved

The decision comes after a standoff between a developer and opponents.

Published June 2, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - Environmental consultants for Cypress Creek Town Center plan to excavate 33 gopher tortoise burrows and move up to 10 tortoises off its property today.

The move comes after a weeklong standoff between the mall's developer and its opponents, who blocked the Richard E. Jacobs Group from moving the tortoises earlier this week.

"Friday, we notified the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that we will proceed with the existing, valid permit for relocating up to 10 gopher tortoises from the Cypress Creek Town Center site to an approved recipient site that provides high quality gopher tortoise habitat," Deanne Roberts, a spokeswoman for the mall, said Friday.

"Should any additional tortoises be found on the site, next week the developer will ask for an amended permit to increase the number of tortoises that can be moved," she said.

The mall's critics say the developer hasn't met the conditions of its tortoise relocation permit. Specifically, they say not all Pasco County permits are in hand.

Wildlife commission officials said they only require all permits up to the point of land clearance to be in place, before the tortoises are moved.

As far as Pasco County is concerned, the Jacobs Group can go ahead and clear land, said the county's development director.

"Cypress Creek Town Center has a site development permit for the off-site utility plan and mass grading," county development director Cindy Jolly said Friday.

The mass grading permit allows the developer to go ahead with land clearance, Jolly said. Other site development permits are expected within a week, she said. The documentation needed to permit the mall infrastructure is in order, but still needs a final check at her department.

"Every county has different procedures in the land development process," she said, referring to comparisons that mall critics have made to a similar case involving Wal-Mart in Tarpon Springs.

The mall's opponents also say the developer didn't count enough tortoises.

On Wednesday, Biological Research Associates, the developer's consultants, conducted a recount and stood by its earlier survey of 10 tortoises and 33 burrows.

Roberts said Biological Research Associates would conduct the relocation at 7 a.m. today, but may postpone it to Monday in case of bad weather.

It was unclear Friday if wildlife commission officials would be present at the relocation.

The mall's critics protested the move. Reached Friday, Dan Rametta, a member of the Citizens for Sanity group, charged that the developer applied pressure on the regulatory officials.

"I don't know what to say," he said. "These people just ignore the provisions and conditions of the permit. They rationalize that 'all' doesn't mean 'all.' "

Asked how the group would respond, Rametta said he didn't know yet.

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