Three members of Congress from the Tampa Bay area are pushing federal regulators to approved a proposed 4-mile channel at the SunWest property in Aripeka, saying the project would boost the economy and give boaters access to the Gulf of Mexico.
Last month, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would deny the project unless the county narrowed the channel or secured another five or six acres of sea grass mitigation to offset environmental damage from the dredge.
The 62-foot-wide channel 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 park would include seven boat ramps and 250 boat parking spots.
In a letter dated Thursday, the three Republicans said the project is being "subjected to additional requirements beyond those of other projects in the area," a reference to the Hudson channel.
"The public interest in the park and access to the Gulf is overwhelming," reads the letter, signed by U.S. Reps. Gus Bilirakis of Palm Harbor, Rich Nugent of Spring Hill and C.W. Bill Young of Indian Rocks Beach. "We expect this park and public channel to be a centerpiece for local revitalization efforts in Northwest Pasco County."
The congressmen urge Army Corps officials to ensure that the county's mitigation plan is "science-based" and evaluated with standards used for past projects.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has criticized the county's mitigation strategy, saying the efforts would have a "fairly high chance of failure."
In a May 16 letter, the Army Corps gave county officials 30 days to offer changes to the proposal or face likely denial. "General environmental concerns and impacts to fish and wildlife weigh in favor of finding the proposal contrary to the public interest," the Corps letter says.
County Commissioner Jack Mariano, a longtime supporter of the project, has complained that Corps officials are not giving the county enough credit for the mitigation it has already offered. Because of safety concerns, he said, he is unwilling to reduce the channel width to 45-50 feet, roughly the size of the Hudson channel.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.