One of Pasco's major environmental battles is back for another round.
Federal officials have begun a new 30-day public comment period on the proposed Ridge Road extension, an east-west route that has long faced objections from environmentalists. County officials are still seeking permits to build the road, mired in what is thought to be the longest-running environmental permit project in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Though not an end to the process, the public comment period is a significant step toward finalizing the review.
"We need to re-engage the public and get their input before we make a decision," said Tracy Hurst, the Corps' project manager.
The two-phase project would link Ridge Road to the Suncoast Parkway, and then on to U.S. 41, easing traffic congestion in central Pasco and giving west Pasco residents another hurricane evacuation route. But environmentalists' biggest objection is that the highway would cut through the Serenova Preserve, a 6,000-acre swath of wilderness.
Serenova was set aside "for the specific purpose of mitigating the 200 acres of damage caused by the Suncoast Parkway," said Clay Colson, spokesman of the environmental group Citizens for Sanity. Destroying wetlands in Serenova, he said, amounts to breaking that promise.
Supporters say the limited-access highway would provide better access to west Pasco and the Suncoast for those living in Connerton and other neighborhoods along U.S. 41.
"Highway 41 is kind of in limbo," said Donna Cardellino, a Port Richey Realtor who has spent the past month whipping up public support for the project. "If that was opened up, they would come on down to the U.S. 19 corridor and I'm sure do much more business."
Cardellino also said the road would be a critical lifeline for residents who would be "trapped" during a hurricane. County Commissioner Pat Mulieri penned a letter to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson last month, arguing that it's evident Pasco "needs congressional assistance" to get the project approved.
Pasco County first applied for a permit to extend the road in 1998. Last December, after more than a decade of review, the Corps deemed the county's application "withdrawn." But it gave officials a year to resubmit their plans.
In May, the county sent another application with a fresh plan to address environmental impacts. After receiving comments from the public, the Corps said it will evaluate the application "over the next several months."
Once a decision comes down, the process still might not be over. Colson promises a lawsuit if the agency grants the permit. "We'll be in federal court," he said. "That's what you've got to do when the powers that be ignore their rules."
The county also has the option of going to court if the Corps denies the permit.
The first phase of the project is a 4.2-mile highway from the end of Ridge Road to a new interchange on the Suncoast. The second phase would span another 3.4 miles to U.S. 41. According to a summary provided by the Corps, the county has budgeted $132 million for the project. The Florida Department of Transportation would be responsible for building intersections on either side of the parkway.
The county proposes a plan to minimize disturbances to the Florida scrub jay, gopher tortoise and other animals that live in Serenova. It includes nine wildlife crossings under the road. Colson argues that the county's environmental and wildlife studies are outdated and should not be used on the new application.
To compensate for destroying 59 acres of wetlands, the county plans to preserve 220 acres of swampland in between the River Ridge subdivision and Starkey Wilderness Park.
In addition, the county would preserve one of three other tracts:
• An 830-acre strip of the 4G Ranch to connect the Conner Preserve with the Pinellas-owned Cross Bar Ranch, creating a "wildlife corridor" that allows animals to roam between large preserves.
• Or 519 acres known as the Crockett Lake tract, just east of Moon Lake Road and along the proposed Ridge Road extension.
• Or 881 acres of the Starkey Ranch near Trinity. It features much of the land that was the subject of a proposed land deal with the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Gov. Rick Scott's administration scuttled that sale in June.
As part of the DOT's interchange project, 11 acres of wetlands would be destroyed. The department proposes setting aside 86 acres of borrow ponds and rangeland on either side of the new highway. The department also proposes using "excess mitigation credits" from the Suncoast project. The argument is that the DOT preserved more than enough land to compensate for wetland loss.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.