Federal regulators are again seeking public input on the proposed 4-mile channel at the SunWest mine property in Aripeka.
This week the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers outlined key changes to the controversial dredging project and said people have until Sept. 19 to submit comments. Afterward, the agency will consider the input and decide whether to issue a permit to Pasco County to dredge the channel.
The plan is to expand an existing channel that would be shared by boaters launching from a future county park and residents of a proposed 2,500-home luxury development called SunWest Harbourtowne. The county park would provide access to the gulf via seven boat ramps and 250 boat parking spaces.
Changes to the project seem designed to win over skeptical corps officials who in May said they were leaning against issuing a permit. They include:
• Narrowing the channel's bottom width from 65 feet to 60 feet, as corps officials suggested. County officials have said for months that isn't a problem.
• Setting aside nearly 1,000 acres of "seagrass protection zones" to help offset the seagrass that would be damaged by the project. Motorized boats would be prohibited from crossing these protected seagrass beds. This proposal would offset the 4 to 5 acres of damage that corps officials told the county to address in a May 16 letter.
That letter also said the corps would provide "no compensatory mitigation credit" for establishing seagrass protection zones. But Michele Baker, chief assistant county administrator, said the Corps has issued permits in the past using this preservation tactic. Notable projects include the Hudson channel and Port Manatee.
"Not only have we used it previously, and quite successfully," she said, "but (the Corps has) permitted other projects in the west central gulf region."
Baker said there would be signs warning boaters about the protected areas at "logical entry points," such as markers on the edge of the channel. There would also be educational signs at boat ramps. Boaters who ignore the signs could get a ticket from the Pasco sheriff's marine patrol or state wildlife protection officers.
"It is an enforceable zone," she said. "And we will enforce it."
The revised application includes 992 acres of seagrass split into four protected areas. Two areas totaling almost 400 acres are next to the proposed SunWest channel. The rest are near the Anclote River in Holiday, just west of the county's Anclote River Park. That area would include signs marking a channel for boaters who want to travel north and south between two large seagrass beds.
The proposed dredging project would damage 28 acres of seagrass. The seagrass protection areas would offset about 5 acres of damage, while the remaining 23 acres of damage would be offset through a variety of seagrass and habitat restoration projects along Pasco's coastline.
Mac Davis, president of the environmental group Gulf Coast Conservancy, said he hasn't had time to thoroughly study the project's new summary, though he will submit a detailed response. Davis said the agency to watch is the National Marine Fisheries Service, which has been highly critical of the project.
"If those guys get on board, then it's probably a done deal," he said. "If (agency officials) restate their complaints, then we're probably not any further along than we were in April and May."
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.