Developers, environmentalists at odds about proposed Terra Ceia development

03/14/12 Janelle Irwin
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A small group of landowners has proposed developing a resort and marine center along Tampa Bay at the southern end of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. As proposed, the development would be hinged on a land swap with the state. Some environmentalists worry that building would be harmful to the area’s ecology.

Owners of the private land want to give the state just shy of 1,000 acres. In return they are asking the state to hand over only 77 acres. And the tract of land on the table for the state’s taking is one they’ve wanted for a while. But the Sierra Club’s Sandra Ripberger cautioned that giving developers what they need to build might damage the fragile marine habitat.

“Terra Ceia is one of the preserves that has been set aside for, not only the sea grass, but for the habitat, the fisheries. I understand there’s – I’ve eaten clams from Terra Ceia. There’s a clam-farming facility. The water is quite clean and it’s doubtful that it would remain so. Certainly the construction would cause a lot of turbulence that would probably impact sea grass away from the fill area also.”

There’s a reason the landowners are offering more acres than they would be getting. They own the Knott-Cowen Tract and Rattlesnake Key, which can only be reached by boat, while the acreage they’re asking for is more accessible. Honey Rand is the spokesperson for the owners. She said they want the swap to protect the area’s ecosystem.

“The Knott-Cowen has rights associated with it and it can be built on. Rattlesnake Key can be built. The project that they’ve developed at this point would be magnificent and it would be located in the most disturbed area, but it’s just that it would be a much different looking project if it was located strictly on the Knott-Cowen tract and/or on Rattlesnake Key.”

Rand calls the area disturbed because it was impacted by construction of the Skyway Bridge. She claims that harming sea grass isn’t an issue because there isn’t much there anyway. But Sandra Ripberger from the Sierra Club doesn’t buy that entire argument.

“It is disturbed because they built the Skyway Bridge there, but it hasn’t been disturbed for a while and some of the sea grass definitely has re-grown and some has been planted as mitigation in some of those areas.”

One of the landowners, Brightman Logan, also owns a native plant nursery. Other owners include Tampa land use attorney David Smolker and businessman Bill Blanchard. Their spokesperson Rand said none of them want to see harm done to the bay.

“Most of the people who have invested in this – these guys are fisherman, their outdoorsmen and women and these are people who grew up here, who love Florida’s environment. That’s how the whole concept of moving to the most disturbed area camp up.”

And the Sierra Club’s Sandra Ripberger isn’t just concerned about the development’s environmental impacts. She’s also worried about the environment’s eventual impacts on the development.

“This is an area of rising sea levels and there’s no doubt about that. There’s argument about the cause, but the sea levels are rising and this is a coastal high-hazard area. It just seems very unwise to put structures there at this point.”

Despite concerns, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council is interested in taking a look at the proposal. Suzanne Cooper is the principal planner for the group’s Agency on Bay Management.

“The developers, or proposed developers, of the Terra Ceia area project had been asked to come and present their project to the Agency on Bay Management which is Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council’s natural resources committee and they have declined so far because they say that they are not yet ready to go out into the public with their development proposal – they’re still refining it and figuring out what to do on the site and with the land swap.”

In their original and only proposal to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last year, owners called the development the Skyway Resort. But there have been changes to the plan, including the name. Now they’re calling it the Skyway Preserve. Their spokesperson Honey Rand said changes like that are why the project is at a stand still for now.

“The owners were ready to go start talking to people about it. I had a whole list of groups and clubs and interested parties and others that we were going to go talk to and say ‘hey, what do you think about this?’ It was supposed to happen about mid-January. And there was one of those charrettes, remember I told you? They go in and they talk to all these experts. They went to a charette with a world renowned expert in developing marine type facilities and I got a phone call from somebody that said, ‘don’t go out with that, we have a better plan.’ Which is exactly what’s happened over the last five years.”

The plan also includes a marine mammal teaching hospital. Critics say the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and the Mote Marine Aquarium in Sarasota are enough to support those needs in this region. But in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times in response to an editorial that criticized his group’s plans, Bill Blanchard said there’s a lack of marine mammal rescue centers. He also called the land swap a “good deal for everyone” and wrote that the project would be both economically viable and environmentally sustainable.


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