The local construction industry has requested an extension on a blanket permit tied to seawall building to better study the smalltooth sawfish.
Members of the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association met May 31 with representatives of the Army Corp of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries, as well as with the offices of U.S. Rep. Connie Mack and Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.
The CCCIA requested the meeting through Mack and Rubio's offices.
"The industry felt that it would be in the best interest of all parties if we had some time to sit down together and discuss the issue," Heather Mazurkiewicz, executive director of the Cape construction association, said.
In 2007, the Army Corp of Engineers issued permit SAJ-91 to the city.
Mazurkiewicz explained that SAJ-91 allows the city to distribute permits to contractors for projects along the man-made canals, like building seawalls.
"It used to be that you'd have to go to the agencies to get this done," she said, adding that what now takes two days took 18 months the old way.
In October, the permit expires and must be reissued for work to continue.
Shelley Norton, a natural resource manager for National Marine Fisheries, explained that the corp must first request a consultation with her agency on the impact that reissuing the permit may have on sawfish and sea turtles.
"We are consulting right now," she said Friday. "We have additional information that we need from the Army Corp of Engineers."
After receiving all the information, it has 135 days to issue a finding.
The sawfish is found in tropical and subtropical waters in coastal parts of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Locally, it swims in the shallower canals.
The sawfish's propensity for entanglement in nets, its restricted habitat and its low rate of population growth make it vulnerable to overexploitation.
Norton explained that the Cape has been designated a critical habitat area.
"There are certain features required for nursery areas," she said.
Red mangroves and shallow water - less than 3 feet - are necessary.
There are two known nursery areas, Charlotte Harbor and the Everglades.
"So this is a key area of recovery for the smalltooth sawfish," Norton said of the Cape. "We need that nursery area to function as a nursery area."
However, Mazurkiewicz noted that there are a lot of questions about what type of habitat the species truly requires and where development fits in.
"Our request was to extend the permit, so that we can really sit down and study the science," she said, adding that the plan is to develop a sustainable habitat for all marine species. "We'd like to find a way to strike a balance."
The CCCIA requested an extension of 12 to 18 months.
Mazurkiewicz said a representative from the corp was "comfortable" with granting an extension, but first wanted to check with his legal department.
The CCCIA expects to have an answer within a month.
Norton noted that an extension would allow contractors to continue working along the Cape's canals if talks between the parties push beyond October.
"The industry is concerned about not being able to work," she said.
At the meeting, the parties also discussed the types of information being collected for the consultation and how the consultation process works.
"And what our options are if the permit expires and the consultation isn't complete - what kind of options are available," Norton said.
All parties considered the meeting a step in the right direction.
"I think everyone left feeling it was a very successful meeting," Norton said, adding that the plan is to work toward moving forward on the issue together.
"I think there was an exchange of information on both sides," she said.
Mazurkiewicz echoed that.
"All parties agreed that this was the best way to start," she said, adding that they are trying to be proactive on the issue rather than reactive.
Subcommittees were formed at the meeting with instructions to gather information on everything from how many seawalls are in the city, to how many lots are not built out, to how the city's permitting process works.
The subcommittees will regroup in 90 days to share information.
"And see what our next step is," Mazurkiewicz said.
The goal is to protect the species, but allow the Cape's economy to grow.
"This meeting was vital to do that," she said.