NEW PORT RICHEY — After more than a decade of review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday handed down a long-awaited decision on the proposed Ridge Road extension:
Not a yes, not a no, but a "withdrawn."
In short, that means the Corps is no longer reviewing the application. To jump-start that process, Pasco would have to resubmit plans for the $129 million project.
That's more tough news for the county — though not nearly as bad as the denial that the Corps was prepared to issue.
"I don't think the county would've appreciated the type of decision we would've had to make," said Charles Schnepel, the Corps' chief of the regulating section in Tampa.
The two-phase project would link Ridge Road to the Suncoast Parkway, and then on to U.S. 41, creating another east-west hurricane evacuation route. But the highway would cut through the Serenova Preserve, a 6,000-acre patch of wilderness, and that forms the heart of environmentalists' objections.
The Corps had expected a lawsuit whatever its final decision — the county would have sued over a rejection; environmentalists would have sued over an approval — but its action this week kicks the matter back to Pasco officials.
The Ridge Road project is thought to be the longest running permit application in Corps history, and county officials say they believe that Corps leaders in Washington were pressing the district officials to make a decision of some sort.
"The impression I got from him (Schnepel) was that he was getting pressure to make a decision from his own chain of command," said Pasco's chief assistant county administrator, Michele Baker.
She said Corps officials have told her she won't have to start from scratch. She said the county is getting a year to put together its plans for compensating for the loss of wetlands during the road's construction.
"Certainly this is a setback, but they're saying to me this doesn't mean I have to start over," she said. "I'm proceeding as if they didn't withdraw."
Schnepel said his agency had reassigned the case from the Jacksonville office to the Tampa office to make it easier to "quickly meet and address questions that may arise."
"The county knows there are issues that need to be worked on," he said. "As soon as we get some additional information, we'll be more than happy to put it out to public notice again."
Both Schnepel and Baker said the crucial outstanding issue is locking down how the county will make up for the destruction of wetlands.
As currently envisioned, that wetlands mitigation plan calls for putting an 804-acre parcel at 4G Ranch into conservation to make up for the destruction of wetlands. Pasco and 4G Ranch owner Bill Phillips had finally worked out a deal that would have allowed him to maintain farming and hunting rights on that parcel, said Baker.
But the Corps' lawyers had objected to the terms of the agreement, she said, and Pasco ran out of time to renegotiate with Phillips. Baker said the county will proceed with that angle or may consider other options.
"We've got a year to get it straightened out," she said.
Baker said she feels good about the decision to reassign the Ridge Road case to another Corps office.
"We're starting with someone fresh," she said.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who last month sent a letter to the Corps urging support of the project, was less upbeat than Baker in his interpretation of the Corps' decision Tuesday.
"I believe they don't want the project," Fasano said. "They keep punting."
The Corps strongly hinted the project was in some jeopardy back in September. In a Sept. 8 letter to county officials, the Army Corps said the county's 2001 analysis, which has been subsequently updated, assumed from the get-go that extending Ridge Road was the most practical and least environmentally damaging option without adequate proof.
Corps officials said then that the county needed to come up with that justification or they would consider the application withdrawn.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.