375 Sanctuary Road West, Naples, FL
A federal judge has revoked an environmental permit for a controversial golf course community in northern Collier County.
Wetlands and endangered wood storks that roost at nearby Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary have been the focus of a twisting decade-long legal fight over the permit for the Mirasol project — and it isn’t over yet.
In an order filed Friday in Miami, U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez sent pieces of the permit review back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for another look.
The 56-page order takes issue with the way biologists calculated the amount of fish for wood storks to eat at the Mirasol site, some 1,700 acres owned by IM Collier Joint Venture at the northwest corner of Immokalee Road and Collier Boulevard.
Questions about the fish prey calculation also call into question the amount of mitigation federal permitters required of the developer and their analysis of the cumulative impacts of other developments in the Cocohatchee Slough, the order states.
The order revokes the 2007 permit on only a narrow set of issues, but that didn’t dampen environmental advocates’ elation.
“I can tell you that we’re absolutely thrilled to prevail after all this time,” Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary executive director Ed Carlson said. “We’re waiting to see what happens next.”
The National Wildlife Federation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Collier County Audubon Society, Florida Wildlife Federation and National Audubon Society sued the federal government over the Mirasol permit.
IM Collier Joint Venture attorney Steve Walker said the judge sided with the landowner on most of the big issues in the case, including whether the project minimizes its wetland impacts and harms water quality downstream.
Walker said the judge did not rule that the project could not go forward because the environmental harm was too great, only that a biological opinion and environmental assessment of the project did not adequately describe the impacts.
“We think they’re fixable,” Walker said.
As for the permit being revoked, Walker said: “That’s a real concern to us.”
Spokesmen for the Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service said they still are reviewing the order and its ramifications for its review process.
“The Corps will continue to make permitting decisions in accordance with the laws as they stand,” Corps spokesman Barry Vorse said.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren said the agency could appeal the order or redo the biological opinion to comply with the order.
Whatever lies ahead, the Mirasol project already has traveled a rutted road.
A previous landowner filed the first permit application in 2000.
In the face of an outcry from environmental groups and concerns from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, federal reviewers denied the permit in 2005.
Reviewers cited the amount of wetland destruction to make way for a man-made flowway that was planned to run through or adjacent to Mirasol and four other projects in the same area.
The Mirasol ditch, as opponents dubbed it, was dropped from the permit and the Corps approved the new permit in 2007.
Environmental groups lost a legal challenge to the South Florida Water Management District permit for the new Mirasol project.
As the two sides fought over the state and federal permits, Mirasol’s county zoning approval expired in 2006.
Mirasol dropped a request of the county to extend the permit until 2010 and instead agreed to bring the project back through the county review.
In April, commissioners voted 4-1, with Commission Chairwoman Donna Fiala dissenting, to approve a new rezoning for Mirasol.
Mirasol is planned for up to 36 holes of golf and up to 799 homes.
The Corps permit would allow the destruction of 645 acres of wetlands in return for the preservation of 832 acres of wetlands, 109 acres of uplands and the purchase of 27 wetland credits at the Panther Island Mitigation Bank next door to Corkscrew.
Backers of the project argue that the wetlands are too choked with invasive melaleuca trees to be of much value to foraging wood storks.