Call it an eleventh hour reprieve for some endangered animals. A mall developer has had to step back and count the tortoises — at least temporarily. A mall project proposed in the town of Wesley Chapel, Florida has hit a tortoise speed bump. According to the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, this small town (pop. 5,700) “is a community in progress.” The Chamber paints an idyllic vista of “citrus fields and pasture lands” which “have given way to upscale neighborhoods with beautiful homes of Tampa executives and their families, who have chosen this quiet suburban lifestyle.” But this quiet suburban lifestyle is soon going to change. “New shopping centers continue to appear,” the Chamber boasts, “catering to these suburban pioneers.” What these “pioneers” are going to get soon is their very own mall, part of a 1.3 million s.f. project. That is, as soon as they can clear out all the gopher tortoises. The St. Petersburg Times reports today that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided the mall can proceed — but some tortoises could slow things down. The so-called “Cypress Creek Town Center” (which is neither a town, nor a center) has held off relocating an estimated 10 tortoises, because community opponents say the developer has substantially underestimated the count of the protected animals. To satisfy critics, the developer has hired his own consultant to recount the tortoises on the sprawling, 500 acre site. The state will then review the developer’s report, to determine if changes are needed in the project, which was slated to begin construction next week. “In an abundance of caution, we’re going to conduct a 100 percent survey on the site,” a spokesperson for the developer told the Times. The project cannot be built until the state allows the developer to relocate the tortoises. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation permit can only happen after all other permits for the project have been issued. A group called Citizens for Sanity, has argued that the developer does not have all his permits. The group points out that this is the second gopher fiasco in recent history in Florida. Sprawl-Busters wrote about the other case on March 31, 2007 in Tarpon Springs, Florida, where a Wal-Mart backhoe began removing the tortoises from the proposed site of a superstore in Tarpon Springs, Florida — before they even had their building permits. The Wal-Mart team continued its removal attempts nearly all day — destroying burrows and apparently causing the deaths of some tortoises in the process. At the end of the day, a Fish & Wildlife field agent showed up at the site in the midst of the Wal-Mart team’s desperate attempts to leave the site with eight captured tortoises. Fish and Wildlife officers ordered eight tortoises off the relocation truck. But in Wesley Chapel, Fish & Wildlife said that even though Pasco County has not finished its review of the project, the project could proceed. Opponents charge that Fish & Wildlife has withdrawn into its shell, due to political pressure brought to bear to approve the mall. “There is clearly an indication they brought political pressure to bear on the FWC,” a member of Citizens for Sanity told the newspaper.
A “senior ecologist” employed by the developer said the tortoise relocation would not delay construction. Initial construction could also avoid the tortoise habitats. Citizens for Sanity claims they have counted at least 50 potential burrows on half the property. Readers are urged to contact the Pasco County Florida Commissioners. You can email Chairman Ann Hildebrand at [email protected] Tell the Commissioners to “relocate the mall, not the tortoises.”