Scripps Florida Expansion Faces New Legal Roadblock, Environmental Challenge

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Biotech interests' plan to sacrifice Briger Forest on the altar of development met new resistance yesterday as environmental groups filed a notice of violation with federal agencies charged with permitting the plan, Scripps Florida Phase II. According to one of the enviros' attorneys, the notice effectively stops Scripps in its tracks.

The environmentalists charge that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Army Corps of Engineers disregarded the project's impact on the forest's Eastern Indigo Snake population, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. If the agencies fail to reconsider the permit, the environmentalists threaten to sue.

See also: Arbor Day Protest in Palm Beach Gardens

Briger Forest, while not virgin, is relatively unspoiled, a mix of hardwood forest, freshwater marshes, and prairie, an important locale for migrating birds. In addition to the Eastern Indigo, it is home to species like the gopher tortoise, wood stork, snowy egret, and hand fern. It straddles I-95 north of Palm Beach Gardens, covering almost 700 acres of land, 70 of them county-owned, the rest in private hands.

The developers' plans are tied to the local establishment's Ahab-like quest for the White Whale of bioscience dollars, the idea that public investment in projects like the Scripps Research Institute will ultimately bring a flood of money and jobs to the area. (Meh.) Instead of wildlife, the suits see about 5 million square feet of biotech and office space on part of the land, thousands of homes, a 300-room hotel, and assorted retail space on the rest.

Protests against development on Briger have continued since the project was first floated more than two years ago and have included tree sit-ins and arrests.

The environmentalists' latest action, the notice of violation, was filed on behalf of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition; Sierra Club Florida, led by its Loxahatchee Group; South Florida Wildlands Association; and the Green Party of Palm Beach County. According to Bill Eubanks, one of their attorneys, the notice means a freeze on development at Briger.

"While in theory a developer can proceed despite the existence of a formal notice of violations," Eubanks told New Times, "it would be an especially risky decision since it could subject the developer to various kinds of liability under [the Endangered Species Act]." As he described it, civil penalties could run into the millions of dollars; criminal penalties could include up to a year in jail.

This new turn of events is not the first time environmental concerns have stymied planning for Scripps in Palm Beach County. Local power brokers including then-Gov. Jeb Bush almost ten years ago pushed for construction of Scripps I on a site called Mecca Farms, only to see that plan shut down by a judge's order, at a cost to the county of several tens of millions of dollars.

The blocking of large-scale development out of concern for a small population of snakes (there are an estimated six Eastern Indigos on the Briger tract) is the kind of thing that drives business interests up the wall. But according to Matt Schwartz, of the South Florida Wildlands Association, it's a boiling frogs scenario: "At least one of the things we're saying is that there's such a thing as cumulative impacts. Put enough cuts [of habitat] together and you could eventually end up at extinction."

For the really big picture, Schwartz directed us to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's report Wildlife 2060, which predicts "a grim future for Florida wildlife if growth trends continue."

The environmentalist groups' notice of violation can be found here.

UPDATE: In response to our request for comment, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist Ken Warren wrote:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service received a letter sent September 18, 2013 on behalf of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition about concerns related to the Scripps Briger DRI Project. The concerns outlined in that letter will be reviewed as quickly as possible. Once our review is completed we'll work with the Coalition to address its concerns, as appropriate.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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