FORT MYERS — The Army Corps of Engineers is throwing the Boston Red Sox a curve.
The Corps has claimed jurisdiction over a man-made lake on the 126-acre site where Lee County wants to build the team a new spring training home. That could mean six to nine months of delay in the construction schedule — or more.
It could also mean millions of dollars in mitigation work. The Corps could require mitigation - buying or creating wetlands elsewhere - to offset filling the 8-acre lake and the almost 5 acres of littoral zone that surrounds it.
Lee County agreed to build a new spring training complex for the team when Sarasota came courting the Sox last summer. The project is budgeted at $75 million. The team wants to begin play there in 2012.
The Corps asserted jurisdiction in a Nov. 25 letter to the county and Watermen Development. Watermen still owns the property and is seeking the stadium permits. The county has agreed to pay $20 million for 106 acres, with the team picking up the rest of the land for another $5 million, with a closing in April.
“They had said all along that they were fine with the Corps,” said county Public Works Director Jim Lavender.
The initial proposal from Watermen said that no Corps of Engineers permit would be needed. The letter, signed by Corps Fort Myers regulatory project manager Monika Dey, says the project will require federal review under the Clean Water Act. In addition to the wetland review that would mean consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on impacts to wood stork foraging area and Florida panther habitat.
Lavender said he’d wondered since the site was selected about the wetland permits.
“I’m not a bit surprised,” he said.
The deal calls for Watermen to do the permitting and land use work. The Sox are hoping to play spring training games in the new stadium in 2012.
“This is on them (Watermen),” Lavender said.
John Fumero, a Watermen attorney, said he’ll look to meet with the Corps and hear their logic.
“It’s a relatively small man-made lake,” he said. “It’s a hole dug in the uplands.”
The lake was in fact dug as mitigation for the original approved development That was 20 years ago. Filling it in now would impact cypress wetlands that were also preserved under the original permits.
“I think it’s too early to say what the implications might be on the project,” Fumero said. “When you step back and look at the site and you look at the lake there are no significant resources here. We’re not impacting wetlands or critical habitat.”
Al Moscato is a partner in University Highlands, owners of the back-up site, just north of Germain Arena on Ben Hill Griffin Parkway. Moscato said the company has continued to pursue its own development entitlements, including a possible stadium.
“We’ve met with the Corps and we have our wetland jurisdiction determination and notice (public notice of permitting review) has been issued,” he said. “We’re thinking it’s probably an 18-month process.
Moscato said he doesn’t know the specifics of the hurdles Watermen faces, but the University Highlands owners wanted to be ready just in case.
“And I think our site is a terrific site,” he said.
Moscato said he hasn’t heard anything from the county.
Commissioner Ray Judah, who spearheaded the new Sox deal, called the issue “a hiccup.”
“That really came as a surprise for someone who’s been involved in environmental permitting for so long,” he said.
“We’re talking about a lake that was excavated in an upland area.”
Judah said the Corps could decide not to claim jurisdiction.
“I suspect once they meet with Fish and Wildlife and have a chance to really evaluate they’re not going to go to the mat on this,” he said.
Even if they do, he said, Watermen told the county there would be no issue with the Corps and he’ll expect it to be worked out before the deal closes in April. If mitigation is required, he said, the county has land bought through Conservation 2020 that could be restored for credit.
“I’m not concerned about the time or the mitigation,” he said.