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Will the EPA ruling stop big development projects in Florida?

Written by on Thursday, February 29, 2024

A City of North Port Commission hearing doesn’t give the impression.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Feb. 28, 2024

Host: Agricultural land in the region – and particularly in Sarasota County – keeps disappearing at record pace. On the agenda of the North Port City Commission yesterday was a construction project on 300 acres of pasture and wetland a few miles west of the DeSoto County line that would go up right next to existing natural preserves. This was the first local project coming up after a judge’s ruling last week that has the potential of slowing the conversion of farmland. Our news team checked whether the ruling made any difference in North Port.

Johannes Werner: A federal judge in Washington last week ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency violated the Endangered Species Act by handing over to the state of Florida the responsibility of ensuring the survival of threatened animals and plants. The ruling seems to have the potential of at least delaying major construction projects around the state, as developers now have to obtain permits from the Army Corps of Engineers again.

Back to North Port: An Atlanta-based homebuilder wants 262 acres of agricultural land in the northeast corner of the city rezoned from “no designation” to multifamily housing to build 900 apartments and homes there. During what’s called a “first reading” of the application, North Port city commissioners had to weigh this.

The city planning board already voted unanimously to approve the project, called Toledo Blade 320. And their staffers suggested the proposal is consistent with the city’s rules. A city planner seemed to even suggest that the conversion of grazing land and wetlands into a planned development with a green component is actually good for wildlife.

Six public commenters opposed to the rezoning expressed concern about traffic and stray bullets, as a nearby preserve is used for hunting. But most importantly, they urged the city to postpone a decision, in light of the judge’s EPA ruling.

Public Commenter: The federal court order issued just before midnight on February 15th, is divesting, at least for now, the DEP of its authority to issue state 404 program permits in Florida. Consequently, all activity under the state 404 program is paused until further order of the court. And I’ve handed out an article written by Holland & Knight. They stated that, in the background portion of this article, most of this centers around the endangered and threatened species, and how they’re handled. According to the state 404 application regarding Toledo Village, which is to the south of this project, there are many federal threatened and endangered species. And that’s also listed in the environmental study for this project as well. The Florida bonneted bat, the grasshopper sparrow, and the panther are listed in the application as federally threatened. So, based on the outcome of this federal decision, we respectfully ask that this project be placed on hold until we determine that this development will actually be allowed to be built on this land.

JW: The city recently rezoned the land from agricultural to “no designation”, following a change of its comprehensive plan for the area to high-density residential use. And now Deluxeton, the Atlanta-based builder, wants to construct up to 900 apartments, single-family homes and townhomes, on what is mostly wetlands, and part pasture.

The Deluxeton land, a mile north of I-75 and east of Toledo Blade Boulevard, is next to the more than 2,000 acres that a developer now calls Star Farm Village, with plans to build 3,100 homes there.

To the north, the Deluxeton land borders on the Walton Ranch Preserve; further to the east is the Orange Hammock Wildlife Preserve. The developer wants to build an east-west road along the northern edge of the property; there was no discussion of who will pay for it, and whether it encroaches on the Walton Ranch Preserve. The Deluxeton planners told the city commissioners that they will comply with “state and federal regulations for rare, endangered and threatened species”.

Commissioner Debbie McDowell was the only one on the dais who raised concerns. She talked about too high density and the fact that the developer has not submitted a final plan yet. No vote was taken; a second reading of the rezone request is scheduled for March 25.

Jeffrey Boone, the lawyer representing Deluxeton, had the last word. He predicted that the EPA ruling will not prevent this project from happening, pointing out that a previous mega development in North Port, Wellen Park, came about under federal oversight.

Jeffery Boone: With respect to this recent case, that certainly will be appealed, that now the state of Florida has to turn back over to the Army Corps of Engineers permitting authority, just reminds you that Wellen Park was permitted under the old system before Florida took it over from the feds. So the idea that federal review of the environmental permits somehow will prevent development is just not accurate.

JW: This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.


WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.