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Pasco mulls hiring lobbyist for Ridge Road environmental permit

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County officials, frustrated at their 15-year fight to get an environmental permit to extend Ridge Road, are considering turning to a Washington heavyweight for help.

County officials said they're thinking of hiring Van Scoyoc Associates Inc. to help get a wetlands permit approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It's not the first time they've turned to lobbyists for help. Pasco spent tens of thousands of dollars over more than a decade in attempts to get the road project approved.

Van Scoyoc Associates once employed Republican congressional candidate David Jolly, who's running to succeed the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in Pinellas. Jolly worked at Van Scoyoc for four years, until the end of 2010 when he left to start his own firm.

Pasco officials say they're considering outside help because the road is necessary to tackle traffic congestion and create an east-west route between Moon Lake Road, where Ridge Road ends now, and the Suncoast Parkway.

"As another hurricane season approaches, Pasco County citizens desperately need another evacuation route," County Administrator Michele Baker said.

In particular, officials say they're frustrated at the pace of talks with the corps' Jacksonville office. In 2009, when the permit was thought to be nearing approval, the corps reversed course and requested another environmental study, delaying the project again.

"We have pushed for this for so long because this is that important to Pasco, and if it takes a Washington firm to get us over the line, then that's what we have to do," Pasco Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said.

Van Scoyoc appears well-versed in Florida's nuanced regulatory landscape, having represented local governments including Clearwater, Charlotte and Lee counties and the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Mariano said he expects commissioners will vote Tuesday on whether to hire Van Scoyoc for $38,500. If approved, the company will evaluate the application's long history at the corps, as well as where the permit application stands now and its overall chances of getting approved.

Commissioners say the odds seemed stacked against Pasco a few weeks ago when Baker visited corps staff in Jacksonville to ask about the permit's status.

"All she told me was it didn't look good," Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said of the visit.

Last week, when Starkey went to Washington to push legislators to support relief for skyrocketing flood insurance rates, she made a point to also visit Van Scoyoc.

"I think it's a critical road, and I'm willing to keep trying," she said.

That Pasco might turn to a lobbyist didn't surprise environmental groups opposed to the Ridge Road extension.

"They hired a wheel-greaser last time," said Clay Colson of the opposition group Citizens for Sanity. "The reality is that permits aren't issued on the basis of (the corps) being lobbied. Permits are issued on the basis of whether or not a permit is warranted. The county will do the same thing they always do: throw good money after bad."

In 2008, the county voted to pay $15,000 to Tallahassee lobbyist Jake Varn to help push through the permit application — a controversial decision that came after officials had already spent $240,000 in lobbying fees to get the permit approved.

The county has pushed for so long on the Ridge Road permit, that Pasco officials say the application is the oldest still on record at the corps.

"This is not an idea that came up a short while ago," Commissioner Ted Schrader said. "It came up 20 years ago, and we think we are deserving of that permit."

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco mulls hiring lobbyist for Ridge Road environmental permit 02/20/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 20, 2014 8:11pm]

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