Proposed Pasco County Land Swap with Developer Stalls after Audubon Objections

The Southwest Florida Water Management District was poised to approve a controversial land trade with a major coastal developer on Tuesday, February 24 until Audubon of Florida and the Hernando County Audubon Society raised serious objections.

The trade would have given developers of the Sunwest Harbourtowne Development of Regional Impact (DRI) 90 acres of land purchased under the Florida Forever Program in the WeekiWachee Preserve in exchange for 390 acres of land located further toward the Gulf of Mexico. To sweeten the deal, the developer also offered to throw in another 900 acres even further waterward in the Pasco County marshes.

While at first blush, the vastly larger acreage the Water Management District would get looked good, closer examination revealed that most of it could never be developed anyway due to its deep wetland characteristics. In contrast, the 90 acres to be given up to development is mostly high and dry pineland and scrub land with substantial frontage on U.S. 19, and highly developable. Further, the 90 acres were originally purchased as a keystone piece of black bear habitat that would not be replaced by the larger acreage of marsh land with scattered upland pockets.

Making the proposed trade more unusual was an earlier decision by water management district staff to become a “co-applicant” seeking approval of the DRI.  Among other environmental impacts, the DRI would require dredging of a 2.5  mile channel out into the Gulf to facilitate turning a group of deep rock pits into a harbor, the center of the “Harbourtowne” around which condominiums and homes would be built.  The channel would destroy large acreages of lush marine grass beds. Some Water Management District Board members expressed concern that the decision was made without ever informing or seeking approval from the board itself.

Water Management District Board members voted to sidetrack the deal for at least a month after Audubon of Florida and Hernando County Audubon, along with Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental groups raised objections and generated two newspaper editorials criticizing the proposal. Among objections lodged by Audubon was a question of statewide importance – whether the proposed trade would violate constitutional and statutory provisions intended to guard against the sale or trade of important Florida Forever and Preservation 2000 conservation lands.

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