NEW PORT RICHEY — After a dozen years in the planning, a four-lane limited access highway that would cut through a huge environmental preserve in central Pasco has reached a critical junction.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, weighing whether to issue a permit for the project, has extended the deadline for public comment until Jan. 27.
The project, known as the Ridge Road extension, would connect the heavily populated west side of the county with the Suncoast Parkway and eventually to U.S. 41 at Connerton. It would add 8 miles to Ridge Road, cutting through the 6,000-acre Serenova preserve.
No matter what the Corps decides, don't expect a resolution soon. Both opponents and supporters expect a legal challenge whether a permit is issued or denied. That process could take another year or more.
Meantime, battle lines are forming.
The local environmental group Citizens for Sanity has long opposed the project, and Audubon of Florida recently joined the effort. Opponents were also buoyed this month by a blistering Tampa Tribune editorial that called the road a "boondoggle."
Supporters of the county's plan to build the road include dozens of business leaders, an umbrella group of community associations and U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent. The Times has supported the project in editorials, calling it a vital link in the county's east-west transportation network.
Michele Baker, chief assistant county administrator, said it's important to remember the history behind Serenova and Ridge Road. In the early '90s the county approved plans for a 6,400-home development in Serenova, with the Suncoast Parkway snaking through the middle of the community along with an extended Ridge Road.
That all changed when the Suncoast was built. Federal, state and county officials agreed to build the new expressway along the edge of Serenova and set aside the tract as mitigation for destroying 200 acres of wetlands during construction. But Pasco officials also won a promise that the Southwest Florida Water Management District would deed the county a swath of Serenova for the Ridge Road extension — if the county secured a permit from the Army Corps.
Absent those negotiations, Baker said, "there would be development here, and there would be two roads here. This would not be a preserve. This would be the subdivision known as Serenova."
Audubon acknowledges that agreement allows the Corps to consider a permit for Ridge Road, but the agreement does not require the Corps to issue a permit. The county still must prove it needs the road and that it minimizes damage to the environment.
"Expanding this road will literally divide the Serenova preserve," said Charles Lee, Audubon's director of advocacy. "It will disrupt the wildlife connectivity from north to south. It really degrades every acre within the preserve."
The county included several wildlife crossings on the road, including mesh fencing to prevent indigo snakes from crawling on the highway and getting killed.
"It helps," Lee said of the wildlife crossings. "Considering this tract began as a mitigation tract, I don't think it helps enough. ... Their value is minimal compared to some other road projects."
Besides providing better traffic flow between west and central Pasco, county officials also say the road would give coastal residents more options to evacuate to inland friends or family during a hurricane.
Environmental groups point out that many hurricane shelters are located along the Little Road corridor — west of the proposed highway. But county officials say only a fraction of evacuees go to designated shelters and the road would help relieve traffic from an overburdened State Road 54 that would likely carry many north Pinellas cars.
In a letter to the Army Corps, Rep. Nugent, R-Brooksville, said the county has strived to assuage environmental objections.
"Given the efforts that the county has made to mitigate any negative environmental impacts, I cannot believe that any further environmental concerns can outweigh the value of the human lives at stake in this scenario," he wrote.
The project would destroy about 59 acres of wetlands. To mitigate its portion of that damage, the county would set aside 220 acres of swampland between the River Ridge subdivision and Starkey Wilderness Park. In addition, the county would set aside one of three larger tracts: an 830-acre strip of the 4G Ranch, 519 acres known as the Crockett Lake tract, or 881 acres of the Starkey Ranch.
To mitigate wetland destruction from the state Department of Transportation's portion of the project, officials propose setting aside 86 acres of borrow ponds and also using "excess mitigation credits" from the Suncoast project. The argument is that the DOT preserved more than enough land to compensate for wetland loss.
Baker said the county theoretically could have made a similar argument, but that it wasn't "worth the headache."
Baker said Pasco has to plan for a reasonable level of growth while providing a transportation network and preserving the environment. "We believe this is the best option that balances all of those competing needs," she said.
But destroying a portion of land already set aside as mitigation leaves a sour taste in environmentalists' mouths. In a letter to the Corps, West Pasco Audubon volunteer Barb Walker called the mitigation plans a "shell game."
"This is one of Florida's special places, and it should be fiercely defended against encroachment of a highway that will severely compromise its wildlife habitat values," she wrote.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.