The state Department of Environmental Protection is poised to recommend giving Pasco County a permit to dredge a 4-mile channel for a future county park near the SunWest development in Aripeka.
Department staffers gave initial approval Tuesday after county officials and a private engineer presented a plan to mitigate the impact on sea grass. Next up is a May 17 meeting where the Florida Cabinet could give final approval to the county permit.
"We met with the Cabinet aides and it was a very productive," said engineer Bob Carpenter, a former high-ranking official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who now represents SunWest Harbourtowne, a proposed luxury development just north of the proposed county park. He attended the meeting with Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker and Commissioner Jack Mariano. "DEP is recommending approval."
Mariano added that "we're expecting good results" at the Cabinet meeting.
The channel would be shared by boaters launching from the park and the development that takes its name from a longtime limerock mining operation at the site. The county park would provide access to the gulf via seven boat ramps and 250 boat parking spaces.
A permit for the channel also makes the proposed 2,500-home community more attractive as Carpenter's group looks for a buyer for the site.
"Once the approval is there, then SunWest can say, 'Hey, we've got deepwater access,' " he said. Though the park and channel are separate from the development, he compared it to "Derek Jeter moving in next door."
The development on 1,000 acres also calls for 250,000 square feet of retail space, an 18-hole golf course and a hotel.
The project will include dredging 33 acres to extend and deepen the current channel. That project is expected to cost $10 million, paid by SunWest. Developers also will pay for a $3.7 million mitigation plan.
That plan includes restoring 106 acres along Pasco's coast to their natural state to allow sea grass to grow. Dirt from the channel project will be used, for example, to fill a 16-acre hole near the Anclote power plant to the correct depth where the grass gets enough sunlight to grow.
Other parts of the plan include widening a culvert across Strauber Memorial Highway to allow more water to reach inland wetlands and removing a pair of berms to restore a mangrove near the Werner-Boyce state park.
Officials also plan to remove invasive Brazilian peppers at several sites.
Environmentalists have been critical of the project, most notably for the development's impact on the Florida black bears that travel through and live in a portion of the property. Pasco County commissioners signed off on the proposed development last March after they said the plan had enough environmental protections.
Mac Davis, president of the Gulf Coast Conservancy, agreed that the county needs more gulf access, but he said the county could build a park without the deeper channel.
He added that it would be difficult to enforce idle speed zones for boaters travelling such a long channel.
"Sooner or later this thing's going to wind up with some poor kayaker getting swamped," he said.
With a state permit in hand, Mariano said, the county needs final approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and then it can begin the project. He said federal approval could take about a month.
He said vendors who operate the proposed boat ramp and kayak launch could help offset costs paid by the county to operate the park.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.