Friday, January 19, 2018
Editorials

Plan for new channel deserves close scrutiny

Commissioner Jack Mariano should curb his petulance toward federal reviewers of a planned wider, longer channel linking the Gulf of Mexico to a future county park and the proposed SunWest Harbourtowne resort in northwest Pasco.

Last month, Mariano signed a rhetoric-filled 14-page letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accusing a separate federal agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, of sabotaging the permit application by raising concerns about environmental damage from the channel dredge.

Mariano thundered that one reviewer, nationally recognized seagrass expert Mark Fonseca, a Marine Fisheries biologist, "obviously does not have a clue about this project'' and "demonstrates a clear lack of knowledge and expertise on seagrass in Pasco County.''

That logic is ridiculous. Florida's 2 million acres of seagrass beds do not behave differently according to a county's political boundaries.

As envisioned, the channel, 85 feet wide and four miles long, would be shared by boaters launching from seven boat ramps at the future county park and residents/vacationers at the proposed 2,500-home SunWest Harbourtowne just south of the Hernando County line in Aripeka. The permit application is being spearheaded on the private side by Robert Carpenter whose company is completing the long-delayed dredge of the Hernando Beach Channel, four miles north of the Hernando-Pasco border.

While the Dec. 16 letter carried Mariano's signature, it is reminiscent of the 2008 e-mail from Carpenter to Pasco County about its own internal staff review. At the time, Carpenter said the county biologist (the late Robert Tietz) was "not on our side'' and making "permitting almost impossible'' after Tietz suggested a study of Pasco's coastal resources, including environmentally sensitive seagrass that plays a crucial role in the health of the state's fisheries.

In unveiling the Harbourtowne proposal in 2007, the owners said they could dredge the channel without seagrass damage. Later, the state required a recalculation to consider separate, patchy spots of seagrass collectively. The new count meant the dredge would have to mitigate for 28 acres of destroyed seagrass.

As part of the mitigation, the developer proposes to encourage seagrass growth elsewhere by filling a 15-acre underwater hole off the coast of Anclote, created when fill dirt was needed for building the power plant there. Marine Fisheries labeled it extremely risky and said no backup plan was provided in the event of failure. Environmentalists say the idea of filling the underwater hole should be rejected or at least subjected to further study, since a 2005 examination of 11 dredge holes in the Tampa Bay Estuary led to recommendations that seven holes be left unaltered because of their significance as fish habitat.

It's a key point. Instead of lamenting additional scrutiny, Mariano should welcome it. If the Army Corps approves a dredge permit for this channel, it faces a promised legal challenge from the Florida Wildlife Federation. Expecting a federal agency to push through a controversial permit application based on political pressure, rather than legally defensible science, is imprudent.

Election year impatience shouldn't advance recreation and potential future commerce ahead of environmental safeguards.

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