During all the talk about a proposed high-end marina and resort transforming northwestern Pasco's economy and property tax base, a key component kept getting overlooked: You can't hurt marine species to benefit yacht captains.
That was part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rationale for rejecting a permit application from the county and SunWest Habourtowne to dredge a channel connecting a planned resort and abutting county park to the Gulf of Mexico. The proposed 60-foot wide, 4-mile-long channel would have damaged 29 acres of seagrass, which is habitat for recreational and commercially important fish. The channel dredge, as envisioned, could have harmed the multibillion-dollar recreational fishing industry it had intended to aid.
Protecting the environment is a greater public purpose than creating boat access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Corps was correct to ignore the political pressure from a trio of Tampa Bay members of Congress who championed the cause as a jobs creator.
In conjunction with the channel, Pasco County wanted to build a seven-lane public boat ramp at a new county park. SunWest, which would have been responsible for the cost of the dredging, wanted to develop a 2,500-unit residential and vacation resort with gulf access. It wanted a channel large enough to entice the yachting public. The land for both the park and the resort are former limestone mines that now feature five lakes.
The federal ruling was not unexpected. Pasco County still plans to build its park featuring lakeside beaches and already has begun a redesign to limit the impact on 4 acres of wetlands that would have been damaged by the original parking lot location.
The future of the much grander private residential and vacation resort is not as clear. Without the channel to the gulf, SunWest Harbourtowne likely becomes a less valuable site for a golf course/lakeside community with a pretty view in a remote locale.
Both County Administrator John Gallagher and Commissioner Jack Mariano, who represents northwest Pasco, said the county likely will try to devise a plan that the Corps will find less objectionable. Then they should look to downsize the proposed channel or evaluate expansion at existing boat ramps along Pasco's coast. County residents are still getting a new park, beach, sunset views and small-scale commercial corridor at a lakeside location. The county doesn't need to assume a long-term permitting battle with the federal government just to benefit a private development.