From: Josh Hafenbrack, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Published August 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Environmental Groups File Lawsuit to Reverse Crucial Scripps Permit

Environmental lawyers are mounting what they say is their strongest challenge yet to the Scripps Florida biotech park at Mecca Farms, even as the county moves to sell land at the site.


The Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club filed a 52-page brief Monday urging a federal judge to throw out a crucial U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit that is a prerequisite to the park.


"This is the lawsuit that has the potential to really make an impact," said Lisa Interlandi, a lawyer for the Environmental and Land Use Law Center, which is arguing the case.


That lawsuit -- one of five pending over the Scripps project -- is only part of a massive, ever-expanding paper trail in the war between green groups and the county.


But even as the courtroom battles continue, the county and Scripps Research Institute forge ahead with plans to turn the 1,919-acre Mecca Farms into a thriving science village.


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County commissioners next week are scheduled to weigh taking the long-awaited step of selling Mecca Farms land. The options include selling the land in one chunk to a private developer, or breaking it up into smaller pieces.


"I think very much, buyers should beware," Interlandi said. "Selling the property, proceeding with construction -- they are extremely reckless uses of taxpayer dollars."


This week's motion argues that the Army Corps violated federal law in issuing a permit for the county to begin work on 535 acres without taking into account the rest of the park and accompanying developments.


That permit, issued in February, was a key development in the Scripps saga because it allowed the county to begin construction on Mecca Farms just as Scripps was getting antsy over lawsuit-induced delays.


It also immediately was a flashpoint among environmentalists, who attacked it as a myopic view of a sprawling project.


The Army Corps should have considered the entire Mecca Farms site and development on 4,700-acre Vavrus Ranch, the brief filed Monday argues.


"Developing Mecca and Vavrus is creating a domino effect for the western part of Palm Beach County," said Kay Gates, chairwoman of the Sierra Club Loxahatchee Group.


In a separate motion, the Army Corps argued that it didn't have the authority to take into account an "expansive range of conceivable environmental impacts that might be associated with possible future development." The courts should give the Army Corps deference in its site review, the agency's lawyers argued.


Other Scripps lawsuits challenge county development orders and comprehensive plan changes made to accommodate the biotech development.


The county, which has racked up a growing $1.5 million legal tab, has been successful in battling back lawsuits so far, winning its first five judgments. But recently, there have been setbacks.


A federal judge this month denied bids by the county and Scripps to join the lawsuit over the Army Corps permit. And construction of pipelines that would provide a water supply to Mecca Farms was halted after A resident of The Acreage, Lisa Lander, filed suit, even though water director Bevin Beaudet called it "frivolous."


"I think there's always been a recognition that there could be an adverse verdict at some point," County Administrator Bob Weisman said.


Even in selling Mecca Farms land, "The status of the lawsuits will almost certainly be a factor," Weisman said. "We've been quite conservative in our expectations and the risks. As we've won more cases, we've felt better about our situation. But that's not a guarantee that something will not happen down the road."


But environmentalist Barry Silver sees the county's progress on Mecca Farms as part of a careful game plan.


"The county from the very, very beginning has sought to make it seem like this is a runaway train," said Silver, whose lawsuit alleging a conspiracy to bring Scripps to Florida was once rebuffed by the courts, but has been refiled.


"The court systems are very reluctant to undo developments, and the county knows that. They're trying to convince people that this is a fait accompli and therefore, stop complaining about it."


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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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