Monday, October 09, 2006

Mirasol vote stirs environmentalists in Florida panther country

Wetlands destruction permit to be decided this week by water management district

By Eric Staats
Monday, October 9, 2006

A golf course community snarled in a permitting dispute is up for a new vote this week amid warnings from environmental groups and questions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The debate focuses on the fate of endangered wood storks at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, the bird's largest North American rookery, and the destruction of hundreds of acres of wetlands in a natural slough targeted for restoration in a draft plan being written by state and federal agencies.

The governing board of the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach is set to vote Thursday on a wetlands destruction permit for Mirasol, planned for up to 799 homes and two golf courses northeast of the intersection of Immokalee Road and Collier Boulevard.

The vote kicks off Round II of the permitting effort for Mirasol, which already has a permit from the water management district from 2002.

That permit was put into question when, in a rare move, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied a permit for Mirasol in 2005, in part because of a manmade channel the developer had proposed to dig through wetlands as a way to preserve places for water to flow.

Mirasol has submitted new plans that eliminate what project engineers called a flowway, but that hasn't swept away concerns about the project.

"We're a little disgusted we have to deal with this again," said Brad Cornell, Big Cypress policy advocate for Collier County Audubon Society and Audubon of Florida. "The applicant, Mirasol, has not taken 'no' for an answer."

Mirasol is planned for more than 1,700 acres, including 1,450 acres of wetlands. Mirasol would destroy more than 650 acres of wetlands, compared with 587 acres in the original plan, according to a federal count.

The water district counts 595 acres of destroyed wetlands in the new plan, an increase of 27 acres compared to the original version, according to the district.

Mirasol is proposing to preserve 830 acres of wetlands and 110 acres of uplands, buy credits in a mitigation bank and restore 100 acres of Florida panther habitat.

"Truthfully, to me, I'm amazed at the opposition," said Bob Claussen, managing member of IMCOLLIER Joint Venture, the developer of Mirasol. "We feel we've done everything that is proper and good for the environment."

Claussen's joint venture partner is Virginia coal mining magnate J.D. Nicewonder, who is listed as the applicant on a corps permit that is pending for the new Mirasol project.

As part of the federal review, the EPA has written a letter to the Corps asking for more information and raising red flags.

"The magnitude and scope of the environmental impacts that would result if a permit were granted for this development appear significant," the EPA letter says.

Environmental advocates are busy with their own letter-writing campaigns.

By the end of last week, an Audubon alert about the new Mirasol vote had clogged the water management district's e-mail system with 480 letters of protest, and more than 280 opponents had signed on to a petition against the project, Cornell said.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, along with the two Audubon groups, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the National Wildlife Federation ran a half-page newspaper ad Sept. 24 rallying opposition to the project.

In a response to the ad, Claussen sent a letter to governing board members Wednesday to say he was "dismayed at the many inaccuracies it presented."

The letter takes issue with the ad's characterization of the Mirasol site as being a target of Everglades restoration by the corps and the water district.

Planners with the corps and the district have identified the Cocohatchee Slough as a restoration priority in a draft plan, called the Southwest Florida Feasibility Study, an effort authorized as part of a larger Everglades restoration plan. Restoration work isn't slated to start until at least 2008.

The letter goes on to say that Mirasol will not harm water quality in the Cocohatchee canal along Immokalee Road and in downstream estuaries at Wiggins Pass and will instead hold back 50 percent more runoff than state standards require.

The additional 50 percent meets requirements the Conservancy is pushing as part of a new water quality rule in Southwest Florida, but that still doesn't make up for the degradation in water quality caused by wetlands losses, Conservancy President Andrew McElwaine said.

"It doesn't change the environmental insult created by the development in the first place," he said.

As for those wetlands, Claussen argues in his letter that the wetlands that are lost are being choked by an invasion of melaleuca trees, which will be removed from wetlands that are preserved.

Melaleuca invasion or not, those wetlands still are valuable to recharge underground water supplies, control flooding and improve water quality, environmental advocates argue.

Besides that, the wetlands to be destroyed are shallow and seasonal, and their value is underestimated by federal wildlife officials, said Jason Lauritsen, Big Cypress science coordinator for Audubon of Florida.

The loss of what scientists call short hydroperiod wetlands are a major contributor to wood stork declines in Southwest Florida and, as a result, nationwide, he said.

That's because those wetlands are a crucial source of food in November and December for wood storks and trigger early nesting that translates into successful nesting seasons, he said.

Environmental groups say the water district reviewers are ignoring new information about Mirasol and wood storks since the 2002 permit was issued.

"That, to us, is unconscionable," said Cornell, with Audubon of Florida.

The district is limiting its review of the new Mirasol permit to the removal of the imitation flowway and the construction of a new drainage system to handle runoff, said Bob Brown, the district's regulatory chief.

"It's pretty much the same project," Brown said.

Environmental groups disagree: In an Aug. 8 letter, Cornell wrote that the removal of the imitation flowway in light of federal objections removes the original rationale for the district to approve the Mirasol permit.

"How can the state or federal government justify this level of wetland impacts for a golf course community?" Cornell said. "They can't. It's illegal."

http://www.naplesnews.com/news/2006/oct/09/governing_ board_vote_mirasol_wetlands_destruction_/?local_news

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