Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Federal judge halts work on Suncoast 2 toll road

U.S. District Judge James S. Moody, Jr. granted a temporary restraining order on Thursday to halt the work that has already begun on the extension of the Suncoast Parkway — aka the controversial "Suncoast 2."

The toll road now ends at U.S. 98 at the northern border of Hernando County, but tree clearing and other work has already begun to make way for an extension that would reach into Citrus County, to State Road 44 in Lecanto.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: ‘Road to Nowhere’ is back: Next phase of Suncoast Parkway coming (Aug. 19, 2017)

Critics have spent years fighting the 13-mile, four-lane toll road extension they derisively call "the road to nowhere" because it will end in the middle of Citrus County. It doesn’t head west toward U.S. 19, or east toward Interstate 75, and so far there are no plans to extend it in either direction.

The federal lawsuit that prompted the injunction was filed Monday in Tampa’s U.S. District Court by a group called the Friends of Etna Camp. The group’s attorney, Heidi Mehaffey, said it was composed of historic preservation and environmental activists.

Process servers were expected to immediately serve the order on the defendants, the Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Those federal agencies — which approved the toll road extension, the conservation plan, the biological opinion and other related reports — were ordered to stop all activity "pending resolution of the request for a preliminary injunction,’’ according to the judge’s order.

The suit challenges the permit the federal government granted for the construction of the Suncoast 2. The lawsuit said crews will have to bulldoze through the Etna Turpentine Camp — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — as well as wipe out habitat for gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, both imperiled species.

FROM 2016: Getting it wrong: Suncoast Parkway set to expand even as it fails to meet projections

Etna Camp, once a town of 200 people, sits on state-owned land in the Withlacoochee State Forest. Despite its location and its historic nature, the Florida Department of Transportation’s plans call for running the highway right through it. The U.S. District Court suit contends federal officials failed to do their jobs in reviewing the permit that allowed construction to proceed.

DOT officials have repeatedly said Suncoast 2 is only a segment of their toll road extension plan. They are currently scouting a route for the highway they’re calling the "Coastal Connector" that hooks into Interstate 75. That proposed highway would run northeast from the Suncoast Parkway to Marion County, but is being opposed by interests there.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Suit seeks to stop Suncoast 2 toll road construction

For decades, the Citrus County Commission has supported extending the Suncoast Parkway into its county. But this week commissioners expressed concern about the plans for the Coastal Connector because local input had not been sought. So on Tuesday the commission voted to ask the state to end the road at State Road 44 for now.

The suit filed by the Etna group calls for revoking the permit and halting construction until the agencies can review the impacts caused by both highways being built.

The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the lawsuit because officials said they have not yet seen it.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434. Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

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