Bill Blanchard is a lanky one-time Colorado whitewater guide and mountain climber who grew up in the woods and on the waters around Tampa. He's got "raccoon eyes" from wearing polarized sunglasses and watching for redfish on the flats here and bones in the Bahamas.
He's a highly successful businessman, a principal and vice president of WRB Enterprises, a holding and development company that runs utilities operations on several Caribbean islands.
But uncharacteristically among international business people, Blanchard has been an ally of many civic and environmental groups around Tampa for decades, most recently pushing a successful battle to fend off a landfill in Pasco County near the headwaters of the Withlacoochee and Hillsborough rivers. He's sponsored Tampa Bay Watch seagrass plantings. He's been a director of the Lowry Park Zoo. He and his family were instrumental in bringing the Florida Aquarium here. He clearly takes seriously the unspoken responsibilities of being a successful businessman.
Now, Blanchard is in an unusual position pitting him against some former allies. He's proposed building a resort, restaurant, yacht club and boat ramp at the south end of the Sunshine Skyway – on land owned by the state. To make the deal work, Blanchard offered to trade all of Rattlesnake Key, which his company owns, along with a number of other islands abutting and near Terra Ceia Preserve.
"We're looking at nearly a 10 to 1 trade here," says Blanchard. "We give up close to 1,000 acres of mostly pristine mangrove country and wetlands in return for less than 100 acres of land at the foot of the Skyway, which is already highly impacted by dredging and filling and wave action, and which already has an off-ramp from I-275."
Blanchard and partner Brightman Logan – a Tampa area nurseryman and strong proponent for replacing water-guzzling landscaping with drought-resistant native Florida plants – say the trade would benefit not only their company, but many area communities.
"We're including a public boat ramp in the project, at a location where many civic and boating groups – as well as Manatee County – have proposed a ramp repeatedly for years," Blanchard said. "This ramp would move thousands of boats per year out of prime manatee country and put them closer to the deep water. And we're also planning a resort community of a sort never before seen in Florida, which will be as close as we can make it to environmentally neutral, or maybe even improving the areas that have already been impacted by Skyway construction."
Included in the plan are a number of rental villas that are completely self-sufficient, Blanchard said, generating their own electricity from wind and solar panels and including UV treatment for waste water and composting toilets.
He also offered to donate a portion of the land around the Skyway for a Marine Mammal Research Park, where veterinarians and researchers from all over the world could come to study and work, he said. He also hopes to add a yacht club and charter boat center. The entire complex can be built to withstand hurricanes, sea-level rise and whatever nature throws at it – another criticism of some environmental groups that see this as just another insurance company sink when the "Big One" hits.
Blanchard said his mitigation offer would be a huge step in completing Terra Ceia Preserve. The lands would be protected permanently from development and, as many anglers know, this area is one of the most fish-rich in all of Tampa Bay.
That's the carrot. But there's also a possible stick.
"Before we purchased lands in this area, we confirmed that there still exist bulkhead and fill rights from the 1950s which would allow us to develop a portion of it, including waterfront homes, a restaurant and marina," Blanchard said. "If we can't work out the swap, we would probably go ahead with those plans in some variation so that we can at least get back our investment."
Not so fast, my friend, said Suzanne Cooper, director of the Agency on Bay Management.
"Florida does not allow any dredging and filling without an evaluation per today's standards for environmental protection," Cooper said. "And the Corps of Engineers has already indicated that they are not bound by the state's 1950s agreement."
Cooper also is concerned about introducing many inexperienced boaters to the shallows around the area, some of which are covered in sea grasses. Hardened shorelines and disturbance of wading and shorebirds in the area are also possible negatives, she said.
Blanchard thinks regulatory agencies will eventually approve the fully-developed plan or the courts will recognize the rights he purchased with the land, but he hopes it won't come to that.
"There are a number of ways this could go, including that we could just sell our lands to the state as a preserve and drop the project," Blanchard said. "But that offer has not been forthcoming. We're continuing to meet with all the stakeholders around the area and taking their input and evolving the project to make it fit as well into the fabric of the community as possible, but at some point we have to get down to the business of getting back our investment, which has been sitting there for seven years now."
Final plans for the resort are still a few months away, Blanchard said. When they are completed, he'll begin the lengthy and challenging process of getting the required approvals.