WINTER HAVEN - A development of regional impact review could be a serious obstacle for the proposed CSX rail transfer center.

The study would delay the project because representatives from environmental agencies, area cities, the county and the Florida Department of Transportation would all have a say in the development.

Reversing an earlier opinion, the Department of Community Affairs said Tuesday that the project should be considered a development of regional impact. This will mean months of reviews and approvals while agencies examine issues such as traffic, water use, endangered species, and drainage. Without DRI review, only local planners would review the project.

DCA spokesman Jon Peck said Wednesday that CSX has three choices:

Back out of the project

Ask DCA to reconsider the DRI status.

File an application for development approval with the understanding that the study will begin with a DRI review.

CSX and Winter Haven officials had hoped the project would not be a DRI. However, the Polk County Commissioners asked DCA to make it a DRI to determine what impact the rail center would have.

DCA officials told CSX in a letter that an additional 20 acres for road access to the rail center pushed the development over the DRI threshold of 320 acres.

CSX officials were uncertain what the next step will be, but a spokesman said he still thinks the proposal does not meet the requirements for a DRI review.

"There seems to be some disagreements about acreage and whether it is under or over the DRI threshold," said Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX. "We still believe it is under."

The first phase of the rail center would be 318 acres, plus 20 more acres for the road.

A DRI review would also delay a proposed commuter rail system planned to begin operating in 2009 in the Orlando area that would use 61 miles of CSX tracks the state plans to buy.

The sale of the tracks would require CSX to replace a freight facility in Orlando.

CSX and the city of Winter Haven were set to close on a $6.9 million deal for 318 acres by the end of the year.

The initial acreage would be a part of a 1,250-acre proposed site that Winter Haven city officials agreed to sell last year to the Jacksonville-based railroad corporation.

The Central Florida Regional Planning Council would review the site for DCA if CSX chooses to file an application for the DRI review.

During the review, Peck said the railroad company could enter into an agreement allowing it to begin development in a limited way while it undergoes the study.

A DRI review requires much more rigorous oversight than a local review, said John Ryan, an environmental activist and Polk County planning commissioner.

Stages of each development are reviewed with numerous players involved, such as the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the Department of Environmental Protection. Once the Regional Planning Council hears from numerous agencies looking into the project's impact, the agency makes a recommendation for approval, denial, or approval with certain conditions.

Ryan said some of the adjustments may be difficult. For example, the road into the site may need to be widened or more buffering may be needed, Ryan said.

"Many things could be difficult," he said.

John Chambliss can be reached at john.chambliss@directgates.com or 863-401-6965.