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Mariano’s SunWest project letter draws ire of several commissioners

NEW PORT RICHEY — Less than a week after Pasco County commissioners elected Jack Mariano as their new chairman, he made several colleagues second-guess that decision.

On Nov. 25, Mariano fired off a letter to Gov. Rick Scott asking him to personally intervene in an ongoing appeal with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding the controversial SunWest project in Aripeka.

The Corps’ Regulatory Office in Atlanta heard the appeal in September but could take several months to rule. Hearing officer Jason Steele told the Tribune if the appeal had merit, he would likely send the case back to the Corps’ district office in Jacksonville to reconsider the permit application.

Mariano said that to send the application back to the same office that rejected it would be “ludicrous.”

He asked Scott to contact Brig. Gen. Donald Jackson, commander of the Corps’ South Atlantic Division, to appoint an “impartial federal review official” to consider the application.

“Pasco County holds the opinion that some on the Corps Jacksonville staff will never agree to this permit issuance, regardless of science,” he wrote. “We have literally spent years going in circles, spending taxpayer dollars using science to persuade members of the staff that are basing their position on their personal agenda.”

Other commissioners were infuriated by the letter. “I just find it to be very offensive,” Commissioner Ted Schrader said. “You wrote this as the chairman. You didn’t seek advice from the board before writing this letter. The damage is done in my eyes, and I’m not sure it’s reparable.”

Mariano and other supporters of the project said the corps’ district office in Jacksonville violated its own policies by denying the permit last May even though Scott and the state’s Cabinet had endorsed the project. The application should have been referred to the corps’ regional office in Atlanta, according to corps policy.

The 60-foot-wide channel was designed to provide boat access to the Gulf of Mexico from the future SunWest park and to serve as a major draw for a proposed private development, SunWest Harbourtowne.

Pasco commissioners initially voted not to appeal the decision, fearing they would antagonize the agency that still has multiple permits under review elsewhere in Pasco. The commission later reversed course — to the chagrin of environmental groups that oppose the channel.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said Mariano’s letter, which also threatened legal action against the corps, accomplished exactly what commissioners were hoping to avoid.

“I think you compromised a lot of things and I think you jeopardized the Ridge Road permit,” she said. “My understanding was that we would be hands off after we agreed to file the appeal for the developer. I think you went way over the line in your first week as chairman.”

Mariano agreed he should have made it clear he was speaking only for himself, but he defended the letter — one of a dozen he has sent over the years to state and federal officials. “Every letter I have written has been to the benefit of the county,” he said.

Commissioner Pat Mulieri said she believes the Corps “is big enough that they will not hold this against us.”

“Yeah,” Schrader countered. “There’s also a Santa Claus.”

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