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EPA raises objections to Pasco's Ridge Road extension

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has thrown another yield sign in front of Pasco's push to extend Ridge Road.

As part of a torrent of 1,600 public comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the EPA said it recommends denying a permit for the project as currently proposed.

The agency argued Pasco has not adequately looked into other options that would cause less harm to the environment.

The project "may have substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts," reads a Jan. 27 letter from the EPA's Atlanta office.

The letter came at the tail end of a two-month public comment period. Many of the comments are short letters from residents — business people in support, environmentalists opposed.

Another key agency that weighed in was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which said it needs more information before it can support a permit.

The proposed 8-mile road would connect heavily populated west Pasco with the Suncoast Parkway and eventually link to U.S. 41 at Connerton.

The heart of environmentalists' objections is that the road would cut through the 6,500-acre Serenova preserve. The EPA considers the tract's wetlands to be an "Aquatic Resource of National Importance," a designation that provides higher legal protection.

It's not entirely surprising that the EPA opposes the Ridge Road extension. In 2002 the agency asked that the project "not proceed."

The agency had agreed to drop its objections to the Suncoast Parkway more than a decade ago, largely because the huge Serenova tract was converted from a planned mega development to preservation land. That spared hundreds of acres of wetlands.

The county argues that as part of the Suncoast negotiations, it retained the option for an extended Ridge Road to go through the land.

County officials were not pleased by the EPA's letter.

"We were very disappointed in the Environmental Protection Agency comments," chief assistant county administrator Michele Baker said. "And also a little concerned."

Baker's biggest complaint is that the EPA wants the county to consider a different route or alternatives such as widening State Road 52 and Moon Lake Road.

She said the Corps had previously agreed the current route is the least environmentally damaging option.

Most of the work over the past decade, she said, has focused on minimizing environmental damage and mitigating damage that does occur.

"We've resolved that already, in our opinion," she said. "There is no question in our mind that this was the route that was fixed."

Baker said the agency also referenced old data regarding alternative alignments. The county submitted a new analysis in May when it re-started the permit process with the Corps.

The Fish and Wildlife Service asked for a more detailed mitigation plan and new wildlife studies before it signs off.

Baker said she is waiting on feedback from the Corps about the three proposed tracts the county has offered to buy for mitigation. Once an option is picked, the county would conduct a more thorough analysis.

Fish and Wildlife also requested new surveys of Florida scrub-jays and gopher tortoises in Serenova.

Baker said she believes waiting for old wildlife surveys to expire and then asking for new studies is a tactic opponents use to slow the project down.

She offered to make the Corps' permit contingent on new studies that would be conducted just before construction begins. If the studies highlight new problems, the county would address those issues at that point.

"Otherwise we just keep throwing taxpayer money, redoing survey after survey," she said.

Baker said next step is for the Corps to summarize new issues that were raised in the comments.

The county would then get time to respond before the Corps decides whether to issue or deny a permit.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

EPA raises objections to Pasco's Ridge Road extension 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 1:27pm]
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