Pasco County is moving ahead with the proposed SunWest park in Aripeka even though a key component — a four-mile channel to the Gulf of Mexico — hasn't been approved.
Officials are awaiting a ruling by senior staff at the Army Corps of Engineers after an earlier decision to deny a permit to dredge the channel. Pasco officials say the channel is integral to plans to give boaters access to the Gulf of Mexico. An upscale housing development proposed nearby, SunWest Harbourtowne, is counting on the channel as well.
But even as the legal fight with the corps continues, officials say it won't derail plans for the public park to open next summer.
"The park is still moving ahead, even without that (permit)," the county's parks and recreation director Rick Buckman said.
Pasco officials last week requested developers' proposals for the property's east and south sides. A lake is already there. The county envisions a beach, volleyball area, trail system, restrooms, pavilions, snack bar and parking for 254 vehicles. The four- to six-month project is expected to cost $3.5 million. Proposals are due Dec. 10.
"We hope to start this by the first week of February," project manager Roberto Saez said.
Separately, an Orlando-based company is planning a cable wake board facility.
"No matter what happens with the permit, this is just a great project for the county," Commissioner Jack Mariano said. "It will have miles of beach, volleyball tournaments, wake board tournaments. It will be an exciting place to go to."
Officials haven't finalized details for the project's second phase. For now, the plan calls for an amphitheater, observation tower, children's water feature and 300 parking spaces on the site's north side. Costs and a start date haven't been determined.
It's hoped that gulf access can be added to the list of amenities. County and corps officials met with an arbitrator last month to press their arguments. Most of the channel is in place from when it was built decades ago to transport limerock, but it was never used. The mining company turned to trucks, allowing the passage to fill with silt over time, making it unnavigable.
County officials said they hoped to dredge the waterway and install seven boat ramps to alleviate traffic at launches in Hudson Beach, Port Richey, downtown New Port Richey and Anclote.
But in May, the corps rejected the county's permit on the grounds the work would endanger 29 acres of sea grass and four acres of wetlands. Environmentalists voiced additional concern about the loss of possible black bear habitat.
After balking initially, Pasco officials appealed the corps' decision, arguing the plan already had the state's blessing and that the corps ignored its own policies. Harbourtowne developer Gary Grubbs paid for the appeal.
Saez said a decision is expected in January or February. If favorable, the county would dredge the channel to allow large boats and the parking plan would be amended to include trailers.
If not favorable, "We would just go ahead without it," Buckman said. "There are still plenty of amenities."
The wake board facility is among them. Developer Patrick Panakos and other investors will install the wake board equipment at their own expense and operate the SunWest park.
Cable wake boarding is like water skiing but uses a mechanical device with cables to pull riders through the water. Scores of wake parks, or cable parks, have popped up around the state, including in Orlando, Seffner, North Fort Myers and Deerfield Beach.
Panakos said he won't be put off if the corps decides against the dredging plan.
"Obviously that is the frustrating part if they don't grant that permit. You won't have access for all those boaters. But even without that, we still want to be a part of the project," he said. "We think it's a great project. It's just beautiful there, the location overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. It lends itself to be perfect for outdoor sports recreation."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.