State environmental officials said Tuesday they will deny a permit for an $84-million toll bridge in Santa Rosa County unless the county's bridge authority makes substantial changes to protect the environment.
The comments from six state agencies came in a clearinghouse meeting conducted by Gov. Lawton Chiles' environmental policy coordinator. The Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority wants to build the bridge through and alongside fragile wetlands from Garcon Point south of Milton to Gulf Breeze in northwest Florida.
Environmentalists say the project would devastate a rare wetland prairie, and Gulf Breeze residents say the bridge won't solve traffic problems on U.S. 98, the main east-west corridor through town.
The project is politically sensitive because it has been pushed by Bolley L. "Bo" Johnson, D-Milton, who is expected to take over as House speaker in November.
The clearinghouse gathers comments from state agencies and provides a single response to federal agencies reviewing the plan. The Coast Guard already has decided the bridge would have "no significant impact" on the environment. But one after another, state environmental specialists disagreed with the ruling.
The state Department of Environmental Regulation found numerous deficiencies and omissions in the bridge authority's two-volume environmental assessment. Lynn Griffin, the DER's federal coordinator, said it appeared the report tried to justify the predetermined Garcon Point-to-Redfish Point route without "looking objectively at other alignments."
Griffin and other reviewers strongly urged the bridge authority and its consultant, Figg Engineers, to look for a new alignment that would do less environmental damage. They suggested building a new bridge or widening the existing span from Gulf Breeze to Pensacola. But project manager Linda McCallister said other alignments had been examined and discarded because of relocation costs or environmental concerns or because the city of Pensacola didn't want them.
The environmental roundtable also focused on the consultant's failure to report in depth on secondary effects of the bridge, especially on Garcon Point beside 1,865 acres already bought under the state's Preservation 2000 land-buying program. The reviewers said the bridge will create development pressure and stormwater and wastewater treatment problems.
Marty Seeling of the DER said the plans call for a long, flat bridge and no stormwater collection system, meaning "the stormwater will be discharged into the bay." He said the consultant needed to come up with a way to treat other stormwater to compensate for polluted runoff from the bridge.
Construction channels probably would cause erosion on nearby shorelines and could disturb oyster beds, he said. A listing of endangered plants in the area is inadequate without a more detailed map of their location and the possible effects, he said.
"It sounds to me like there are at least two real critical issues," said Estus Whitfield, the governor's environmental policy chief. "This alignment location needs to be sealed somehow, and the secondary impacts in northern Garcon Point are going to linger. A lot of issues are reconcilable. These two are game stoppers."
Sandy Young, the bridge authority's environmental consultant, said satisfying the agencies' concerns will take time but that resolving the problems is not impossible.