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Scripps project threatens wetlands,need to move

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The Environmental Protection Agency has voiced concerns about the impact of a planned biotech village on the Mecca Farms orange grove west of Palm Beach Gardens, suggesting such a project "may not be approvable as proposed."

The development, planned by Palm Beach County around the East Coast branch of The Scripps Research Institute, could damage wetlands, the letter states, and alternatives to Mecca Farms should be considered.

A companion development on the neighboring Vavrus Ranch is of even greater concern as a site with "significant wetlands in need of protection," according to the EPA letter written in August to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Palm Beach County Scripps program manager Bevin Beaudet said the EPA's opinion should have little impact on Scripps Florida's progress.

"In this case, they're overblown because they're commenting on a project that we didn't even apply for a permit on," Beaudet said.

But the letter echoes claims of environmental groups who have threatened to stop the project with legal action. They say the EPA letter is further evidence that their concerns about the project's impact to wildlife, water quality and open space are valid.

"We're doing the happy dance," said Joanne Davis of 1000 Friends of Florida, one of the groups leading the opposition to the development of Mecca Farms.

Beaudet said the county has only applied to develop the first phase, 535 acres, of the 1,919-acre orange grove. To do so, it had to apply to the Army Corps because the agency has jurisdiction over wetlands. The county will apply later to develop the remainder of the grove.

Army Corps South Florida permit chief John Studt said the EPA "raised serious questions" but mostly on development of the remainder of the Mecca Farms property and Vavrus Ranch.

But the county needs that development to recoup its anticipated $667 million investment in the project and to fulfill Gov. Jeb Bush's promise of a new Scripps-inspired biotech economy. Combined, the state and county have committed $1 billion to Scripps and related development.

"We have made a judgment they're separate," Studt said. "We're considering the biomedical facility on its own merits."

That's just the problem, Davis said. The piecemeal treatment of the development means that the overall impact of both projects is being overlooked, she said.

"I think that this letter confirms what we've been saying, and it's the strongest statement thus far by any government entity that this project is wrong as it's proposed," said Lisa Interlandi, with the Environmental & Land Use Law Center.

In March, the EPA asked for an evaluation of alternative sites but has yet to receive one, according to the letter. Three months later, county commissioners agreed to look at alternatives. That decision and two hurricanes have resulted in a series of delays and missed deadlines. Construction on Mecca is to begin Jan. 3.

Studt said the Corps, too, has serious concerns about development sparked by Scripps beyond its biotech campus. The conceptual plan for the Vavrus Ranch doesn't protect waters that nourish the Loxahatchee River, he said. And the housing proposed for Vavrus may not be needed, Studt said.

The Corps will consider the EPA position, but the environmental agency lacks the ability to challenge the Corp's final permit decision if it objects.

Studt did not indicate whether the Corps would approve the permit. "We're fairly close" to a final decision, which would come "within a matter of weeks," he said.

The EPA's judgment that Vavrus had "significant wetlands in need of protection" did not worry Mike Smolak, spokesman for TechVillage Partners II, the joint venture of Lennar Corp. and Centex Homes, which would develop the Vavrus Ranch.

"We are certainly capable of coming up with an environmentally friendly plan that can satisfy everybody," he said.

Smolak took issue with Studt's contention that no additional housing is needed for Scripps. "I don't think they're familiar with the market and the conditions here," he said.

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In my opinion this was a bad site to begin with. IF they don't get their act together, they're going to lose Scripps to Orlando, or somewhere else. This is a huge project for the south florida economy. Companies are already setting down roots from Miami to Palm Beach in anticipation of getting in on the Scripps stuff.

I think there's a chance they could develop the property in a ecologicly conscious way, but I would prefer a different site. However, if it's the choice between Mecca or losing Scripps, I say let 'em build it.

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This really is the biggest development news Palm Beach County has had since Cityplace. I hope they build here, but like Brickell said, in an eco-friendly way. Does anyone know how many people will be working here?

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There has to be other land in Palm Beach County for the project. If not, they should have thought of that beforehand. All and all this will be a good project for the whole state, but we don't need anymore wetlands, everglades, forests, etc, destroyed for corporations and sprawl. Hopefully the city doesn't lose the ball on this one.

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