Environmentalists explore proposed development in a Terra Ceia state preserve by boat

07/10/12 Liz McKibbon
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A group of investors wants to swap land with the state of Florida at the south end of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The Tampa Bay Sierra Club opposes the development and hopes to retain the land as a preserve. Sunday, some environmentalists toured the proposed development site by boat.

The group of seven rented a pontoon boat and cast off from a small dock in Cortez, located about 10 miles south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The boat headed north past Anna Maria Island. Sierra Club member Kent Bailey captained the vessel.

“We’ll go to Big Miguel Pass and pop in at the area that’s going to be most heavily impacted by this proposed development. And go as far as we can back in there.”

The boat continued past the Sunshine Skyway Bridge toward part of the desired land currently owned by the State of Florida. Private developers own a much larger tract called Rattlesnake Key they hope to swap for the state land. Gale Parsons is the Chair of the Tampa Bay outings for the Sierra Club.

“The thing to keep in mind, the perspective to keep in mind, is we are still in the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve. All of this is in a preserve, so this is where they want to do this development in the middle of a preserve.”

The boat meandered back under the bridge through small coves and keys. The owners of Rattlesnake Key could technically develop there, instead of waiting for the swap to go through. Parsons says even though it’s a much larger piece of land, it consists of very little uplands. Another roadblock in developing the island is that its likely construction of a bridge wouldn’t be permitted because mangroves would have to be destroyed. So the island would have to stay somewhat secluded.

“90% of it is actually Mangroves. The interesting thing, though, that I have found out is that DEP, Department of Environmental Protection has received a grant for over $500,000 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service for the acquisition of Rattlesnake Key.

Ann Paul is with the Audubon Society of Florida and has been active in conservation of the area for years. During the boat trip she pointed out the various bird species off of the Key. She says the State of Florida has been trying to buy Rattlesnake Key for more than 15 years, but isn’t allowed to pay more than market value for the property. Along with some other environmentalists, Paul thinks it’s possible the investors don’t intended to build the proposed plan, but increase the value of the land by generating interest in the area. Paul says the developers submitted a plan in March, but later retracted it and gave the disclaimer that it wasn’t the actual plan for the property.

“One developer will get a series of development permits that are approved by the different agencies and then maybe that development gets sold and then there’s a, ‘well we just need to adjust this permit by this feature or that feature,’ and so something entirely different than maybe the community has evaluated might in the end get built.”

Although no concrete plans have been established, the land could be the future home of a high end hotel, restaurants and private residences. Kent Bailey has been most vocal about opposition to a proposed dolphin viewing area and marine research facility, which Bailey refers to as a ‘dolphin prison’.

“A place where dolphins are kept in captivity and put on display for money… and theoretically researched on. Doing research in concentration camps is not unprecedented.”

A large development in the area could provide much needed employment opportunities. Bailey says this is the only argument developers have to stand on.

“Jobs, jobs, jobs. It’s all about jobs. Never mind that in the process you’re destroying the asset that is what brings people to Florida in the first place. And that’s just going to destroy more jobs in the long run. It has got us into a deep hole and its time we stop digging.”

Because the proposed area of development is located in a preserve, the Governor would have to sign off on the project. George Neimann is another Sierra Club member.

“In Manatee in all the counties, in Hillsborough they do it every single day, they allow filling in wetlands and lands that should be preserved if it creates a handful of jobs. And a lot of times these are low level job seven at minimum wage. It’s not like you say we’re going to create a biotech industry or whatever.”

The Sierra Club of Tampa Bay hopes to stop the land swap from ever happening, but believes the Governor is conducting closed-door meetings with the developers. Without a proposed development plan in place the environmentalists have to wait to find out what they will be up against. Until then, they will be enjoying the natural Florida landscape first hand.

Developers, environmentalists at odds about proposed Terra Ceia development - Janelle Irwin WMNF News

Map of Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve

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