DADE CITY — The fight for a 4-mile channel at the proposed SunWest park in northwest Pasco is dead.
Concerned about risking permit denials for critical projects such as the Ridge Road Extension and drainage repairs in Thousand Oaks, Pasco County commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday against appealing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' rejection of its request to dredge a channel that would serve a county park and a private resort.
"I do not think we should anger the Army Corps," Commissioner Pat Mulieri said. "I mean, they are not happy campers."
Commissioner Jack Mariano, who cast the lone no vote, urged his colleagues to pursue the appeal, saying he thinks the county would prevail.
"If you don't stand up and fight for the right thing, and this is the right thing, you're going to put yourself in the hole," he said.
Mariano pointed out the need for access to the Gulf of Mexico and said he has noticed existing ramps crowded with boat trailers.
"I took photos," he said.
He also pointed out that the developers, which are co-applicants for the dredging permit, would pay for the engineering costs for the appeal.
That wasn't enough to sway the other commissioners
"Why fight the developer's battle?" Mulieri asked.
Commissioners also postponed a decision on whether to approve the expenditure of $132,500 on a park redesign that would not include the channel and could allow the county to avoid having to get the corps' blessing.
County staff said the construction costs could exceed what was originally set aside by $2.1 million. That revelation prompted Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who is at her daughter's home on the west coast but attended Tuesday's meeting via Skype, to ask that the proposal be put off for two weeks so west Pasco residents could be heard on the matter.
She and other commissioners said they were bombarded with email late Monday from residents who feared the extra costs would be paid for with money set aside for a future sports park near Trinity.
"I do not want to do anything to jeopardize a west Pasco park," said Starkey, whose family was left at the altar in 2011 when SportsPlex USA bowed out of plans to build and operate a park at Starkey Ranch.
The votes Tuesday marked the latest setback for SunWest, but a victory for environmentalists who vigorously opposed the proposed channel.
In its denial of the SunWest permit last month, corps officials told county staff that the project was not in the public interest and that the county failed to show there were no "practicable" alternatives that would have been less damaging to the environment.
Other factors the corps said it considered included conservation, economics, general environmental concerns, wetlands, fish and wildlife values, flood hazards, navigation, recreation, water quality and safety.
The corps also mentioned that since 2008 it has received about 9,000 individual emails and two group petition emails consisting of about 40,000 signatures requesting denial of the project. Opponents included the National Marine Fisheries Service, Center for Biological Diversity, Gulf Coast Conservancy, Save the Manatee Club, Sierra Club of Florida, Florida Wildlife Federation and Gulf Restoration Network.
The county had high hopes for the park, which is adjacent to a proposed 2,500-home luxury development called SunWest Harbourtowne. The county park would provide access to the Gulf of Mexico via seven boat ramps and 250 boat parking spaces.
Plans also called for a pair of man-made beaches on a lake near the gulf and a cable-based course that allows people to wakeboard without using a boat.
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In other news, commissioners approved spending up to $2,500 for their top pick for county administrator, Tomas "Tommy" Gonzalez, and his family to visit Pasco next week.
Gonzalez, 46, who is about to leave his job as city manager in Irving, Texas, was chosen from a field of four finalists for the top job.
Gonzalez, his wife and their two sons will arrive Monday evening and stay at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.
Gonzalez plans to attend Tuesday's County Commission workshop and meet with community leaders before leaving on Thursday. He said he will cover his children's airfare, while the county will pay for Gonzalez and his wife.