State officials halted a city drainage project Tuesday to determine whether Port Richey needed permits to dig and run heavy equipment in a swampy area north of Bay Boulevard, said the head of Port Richey's streets department. Officials from the state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as Swiftmud, plan to look at the site today to determine whether the work should continue, said Terry Cobb, the streets department head. The city has no permits to do work in the swampy, densely wooded tract, which is on several acres bordered by Old Post Road and the Town Centre shopping center, Cobb said.
When asked Tuesday whether permits were necessary for the work, he said, "We'll find out in the morning." Cobb said he thought that the city did not need permits to clean out open city drainage ditches that already run through the property.
"We thought basically we were clear to go back there and clean," he said. Cobb was not sure whether the area is designated as wetlands, which would mean it is subject to strict state permit requirements.
The project was started last week to relieve drainage problems off Richey Drive, Cobb said. Former City Council member Joe Mastrocolo, whose home on Old Post Road is directly across from the property, said he called the DER and Swiftmud on Tuesday morning after he heard a backhoe digging on the property near his house.
Swiftmud spokeswoman Gloria Carr said officials received a complaint Tuesday that Port Richey was moving some drainage culverts and infringing on wetlands. She did not know whether the property was actually wetlands or whether Swiftmud had ordered the project halted, but said officials would be at the site at 8:15 this morning to investigate.
If the city did improperly infringe on wetlands, it could face state penalties, Carr said.
City streets and utilities department workers, along with workers from contractors hired by the city, have been working behind the vacant Post House East apartments since last Wednesday, city officials said. Crews connected a sewer line to a house on Bay Boulevard and discovered that the 48-inch drainage pipes running under the Post House East parking lot were clogged, Cobb said.
During the work on the sewer line and the drainage project, a 12-inch water line running behind Post House East has been broken three times. The most recent time was about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, said Gary Deremer, head of the city's utilities department. Crews were working to repair the line Tuesday night.
With the area dug up to put in the sewer line, Cobb decided it would be a good time to replace the drainage pipes and redirect them back to the open drainage ditches on the wooded property, which contains a city retention pond, he said. The drainage ditches into the property have not been flowing properly, combining with the clogged pipes to cause drainage water to overflow near Richey Drive, Cobb said.
A backhoe used to clean the ditches left 20-foot-wide swaths in the property and uprooted several plants and trees. The property is a private subdivision with planned city streets that have not been built, Cobb said. The city is allowed to use those streets.
But Mastrocolo said only one street is plotted through the center of the property, and the city had no right to run heavy equipment through the other areas of the property. It could not be determined Tuesday who owns the property.
_ Staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report.