Planning Council Votes to Limit Wetland Destruction
Environmentalists Remain Opposed to College Expansion Plan
By Carl Wagenfohr
Photo by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - Clearwater Christian College's (CCC) expansion plans were dealt a blow last week by the Pinellas Planning Council (PPC), who invoked a little-used tool called an "Alternative Compromise Recommendation" to send the project, sans the destruction of about 4.6 acres of protected wetland, back to the Clearwater City Council for their reconsideration.
CCC, surrounded by wetland in the Cooper's Point area at the west end of the Courtney Campbell Causeway, was seeking a land use change from "Preservation" to "Institutional" on 7.2 acres of wetland. They planned to use the additional land to develop a regulation-size soccer field, expanded parking, 150 additional dormitory rooms and a chapel.
The Clearwater City Council approved the Land Use change on August 5th despite the planned wetland destruction, in apparent conflict with Clearwater's Comprehensive Plan, which states,
Policy A.1.1.3 Environmentally sensitive wetlands subject to Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) jurisdiction and the jurisdictional wetlands of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) shall be designated by "Preservation" (P) zoning and prevented from being built upon except as permitted by the Preservation Zoning District.That approval was also given with knowledge that the planned development would encroach on a well-established and active eagle's nest, in apparent conflict with Florida's Bald Eagle Management Plan.
Clearwater's approval deferred the enforcement of environmental regulations to other agencies that would later be reviewing the application, including Pinellas County, Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFMD) and Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. That CCC had committed to establish a Mitigation Area on 99 acres of its property that would remain Preservation, and to construct a stormwater system on the developed areas of its property that promised to improve the water quality in Old Tampa Bay, was thought to be a reasonable trade-off for the proposed wetland destruction.
But CCC's application got a much different reception at the next step of the review process, the Pinellas Planning Council.
In their initial review of the application, PPC staff recommended denial of the reclassification of wetlands to Institutional, finding that the proposed amendments for wetland and isolated upland areas "do not recognize either the existing environmental character or the current use of these respective areas and are inconsistent with the criteria for utilization of this category [Institutional]." PPC staff also found that the proposed increase in density and intensity were inconsistent with criteria for amendments to the Coastal High Hazard Area (CHHA).
PPC staff further found that CCC's proposed Mitigation Plan "does not overcome or validate" the proposed wetland destruction or increased residential density.
The pending rejection prompted what Ed Armstrong, CCC's attorney, described as "a fairly intensive dialog over a short period of time."
That dialog resulted in PPC's staff's proposed "Alternate Compromise Recommendation."
Gone was the encroachment on the nearby Bald Eagles nest, and the wetland destruction was reduced from the original 7.2 acres to 2.6 acres. CCC's mitigation effort and stormwater improvements would still be required.
In a cover letter presenting the compromise plan, David Healy, PPC's Executive Director, wrote, "Staff believes this to be a balanced recommendation that we understand is acceptable to the City staff and the College."
Pinellas County staff had agreed with PPC's initial recommendation for rejection, but because the county's environmental staff had not yet had time to review the compromise, Pinellas County General Planning Division Manager Gordon Beardslee explained, "County staff doesn't have a position right now…It does reduce the impacts on the wetland, so it's a positive move in that regard…Whether this would address the full concerns, I don't know at this point."
While Beardslee described the compromise as a "positive move", advocates for preserving Pinellas County's sensitive environmental areas were not in agreement.
University of Florida senior Matt Polling explained to the PPC that the reduced area of wetland destruction was already under a conservation easement granted to SWFMD by the college. "They're going back on a conservation easement that they had already given up for impacts they did in the past," Polling said, calling the college's actions "kind of disingenuous."
"Staff's original report and the reasons why they originally recommended denial of further encroachment into the wetlands are still valid and they haven't been addressed. Although the amount of wetlands that would be impacted may have decreased, you're still proposing to go from Preservation to Institutional in some areas, and you're proposing to impact undisturbed natural areas in the Coastal High Hazard Area," Polling said.
The PPC voted to approve CCC's proposed land use change by a vote of 11-1, with only St Petersburg Councilmember Jim Kennedy opposed. Kennedy had argued for deferring the decision, giving all parties sufficient time to study the compromise recommendation.
The next step in the approval process for CCC's expansion plan will be a hearing on October 5th by the Clearwater City Council on the "Alternative Compromise Recommendation".
Assuming Clearwater's approval, a hearing by the Pinellas County Commission, sitting as the Countywide Planning Authority (CPA), will follow. The next CPA meeting is scheduled for October 12th.
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