St. Joe Development Would Irreparably Harm Lake Powell, says NRDC

WASHINGTON (August 5, 2005) -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) has shirked its legal responsibility to protect Lake Powell and other Florida panhandle waterways from potential destruction, according to papers filed in federal court in Jacksonville late Thursday by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council).

NRDC is seeking a preliminary injunction to stop construction that would destroy wetlands and pollute waters in Bay and Walton counties until a court can hear a lawsuit the group filed in May, contesting a permit allowing real estate firms to develop thousands of acres in the Florida panhandle without environmental reviews and public input required by federal law.

Northwest Florida is an ecologically sensitive area that includes wetlands, dunes, lakes, streams and critical coastal wildlife habitats, such as seagrass beds where sea turtles forage. Eagles, red-cockaded woodpeckers, manatees, salamanders, and other plant and animal species flourish in the wet, temperate climate of the region.

The permit gives blanket authorization to develop 48,000 acres around Lake Powell, West Bay and Choctawhatchee Bay in Walton and Bay counties. The primary beneficiary is the St. Joe Company, which owns more than 80 percent of the land in the area and is the largest private real estate holder in the state.

St. Joe and other developers are poised to break ground for a number of major real estate projects. Among them is WaterSound North, a planned development of more than 1,300 homes, golf courses, roads, shopping centers, and other facilities, on the shores of Lake Powell, a rare coastal dune lake.

"Construction in the area would destroy more than 1,500 acres of wetlands and pollute Lake Powell," said Melanie Shepherdson, an NRDC staff attorney. "A prime fishing spot would be ruined."

NRDC's suit charges that the Corps' permit violates two federal environmental laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement evaluating potential damage from development; and the Clean Water Act, which requires that damage to waterways be minimal. Both laws require public participation, which the Corps has significantly limited in this case. NRDC is asking the federal court in Jacksonville to invalidate the permit.

"The Corps is circumventing federal environmental laws designed to ensure that developers don't destroy the environment that Florida residents prize," said Tom Stein, a lawyer at Proskauer Rose, a national law firm representing NRDC in the suit.