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Environmentalist urges denial of "Bo's Bridge'

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Engineers planning a bridge in the home county of House Speaker Bo Johnson have failed to overcome environmental objections after five extensions from state regulators.

Five overtimes is enough, the senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society said Monday.

Charles Lee wrote a letter to Department of Environmental Regulation Secretary Virginia Wetherell urging her to deny the permit application of the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority. Known as "Bo's Bridge," the project has been pushed by Johnson, D-Milton, since he filed legislation creating the authority in 1984.

Lee said his review of the file and discussion with agency scientists convinced him that the project should be rejected. "When you look at the file and see the intensity of the agency objections and you see the distance between where this project is and what they'd have to do to get it approved . . . it's time this issue got resolved," he said.

The bridge authority's consultant, Figg Engineers Inc., has requested and received five waivers of the DER's deadline for acting on the application for an environmental permit. Without the waivers, the permit would have been denied. The latest extension expires Monday.

Permit coordinator Marty Seeling has prepared a 22-page denial notice in case the authority requests no extension. The DER, which takes the position that applicants can have as many extensions as they want, says the project would pollute Pensacola Bay, damage a rare wetland prairie that taxpayers bought to preserve and foster residential and commercial development.

Lee, Audubon's Tallahassee lobbyist, said hedoubts the bridge authority has the time or money to make the engineering changes needed for storm water and sewage treatment. Linda McCallister, the project manager for the bridge, has said the bridge authority cannot afford to make certain changes suggested by DER to minimize environmental damage.

Lee said the authority will have an especially hard time getting a variance of a state law barring development that degrades shellfish waters.

If DER issues a denial, Figg Engineers could appeal the decision in an administrative hearing, make changes the DER demands or drop the project. The DER says about 100 people or groups oppose the project.

The bridge authority has nearly spent the $3.2-million in taxpayers' money loaned from the Department of Transportation. Another loan of $5.3-million will not be released unless the authority wins an environmental permit.

Lee said the bridge provides a test of the Chiles administration's push for streamlining the permiting process for development of wetlands.

"One of the things that you and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay consistently said was that a major goal of streamlining was to provide answers to permit applications, whether that answer was yes or no," Lee wrote to Wetherell.

While saying the Audubon Society favors streamlining, Lee added that "it ought to be a two-way street. When something is as outwardly as deserving a denial as this one the department ought to deny it and get on with it."