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Parkway hits Audubon roadblock

The Florida Audubon Society has filed to block key environmental permits issued for construction of the Suncoast Parkway.

The group is opposed to a condition that might seem attractive: The Turnpike Authority would preserve 3,375 acres of wetlands in Pasco County in return for destroying 206 acres of wetlands during construction.

The problem, as the Audubon Society sees it, is that most of the preserved acreage lies on the Serenova property, which includes the North Pasco regional well field. The well field is authorized to pump up to 8.5-million gallons of water a day.

Just as well fields elsewhere in Pasco have drained neighboring wetlands, the same is inevitable around North Pasco, said Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society.

"The history of well fields in Pasco County is that wetlands in the proximity will be destroyed," he said.

The group has filed for an administrative hearing on whether the permits should be granted.

The society does not want the road built because it would expose too much environmentally sensitive land on the Nature Coast to development, Lee said. The group lobbies for wetlands because they are bird sanctuaries.

However, a spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which issued the wetlands permits this month, called it "a good project."

The permits require improvement of Serenova's wetlands, said Michael Molligan, spokesman for the water district, which is known as Swiftmud.

And the permits were endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection and other environmental agencies, Molligan said.

It is not clear how long the hearing will last and whether it would interfere with construction, which is scheduled to begin next year.

The 44-mile parkway would run from the Veterans Expressway to Hillsborough to U.S. 98 near the Hernando-Citrus border.

Last year, the Turnpike Authority acquired two tracts that contain all the wetlands it plans to preserve.

The agency paid $18.5-million for the Serenova tract, which totals 6,533 acres and once was proposed for housing development.

The agency also acquired 3,636 acres on the Anclote River Ranch. That property contains no well field but lies near the Starkey well field.

The Serenova tract contains 2,309 acres of the wetlands identified in the Turnpike Authority's replacement plan. The agency plans to donate both parcels to Swiftmud for perpetual management.

The debate started last fall when Swiftmud granted a wetlands permit for a 7{-mile stretch of the parkway in Hernando County.

The Florida Audubon Society sought an administrative hearing of that permit in October.

The group agreed to hold off and review all of Swiftmud's wetland permits for the entire parkway. Those were not issued until March 5.

The permits would improve the Serenova wetlands by removing cattle that are grazing on the property, said Molligan, the Swiftmud spokesman.

Plans also call for the installation of berms to divert water toward the wetlands.

Lee said the plan would allow three pits inside the Serenova property to be mined for fill dirt, which would be used in the parkway's construction.

Molligan said the pits are actually adjacent to the tract.

The Audubon Society and Swiftmud agree that the wetlands at Serenova are in decent to good health, but Lee worries that that could change.

Currently, the West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority, which operates the well field, pumps 2-million gallons a day from two wells at North Pasco.

However, West Coast wants to build four more wells by the year 2000 and pump up to 8.5-million gallons, West Coast spokeswoman Michelle Klase said.

Molligan said that Swiftmud would not allow that much pumping if it finds that it would damage the surrounding wetlands.

"It looks like you end up with a well field that will be aided in its assembly by virtue of the expenditure of mitigation dollars for a highway," Lee said. "That raises the question of the appropriateness of the mitigation."

Lee could not say how much damage groundwater pumping might cause. He said the Audubon Society's expert witnesses will be ready to answer that question during the administrative hearing.

The Audubon Society's complaint also said that Swiftmud's permits did not address the parkway's impact on wetlands outside the road's immediate right of way.

"People will be able to build new houses that they haven't been able to build before," Lee said.

Molligan said Swiftmud worked with the Turnpike Authority to lower the number of wetlands acres destroyed in the right of way from 250 to 206.

Besides the EPA and the DEP, the state Game and Freshwater Fish Commission and the Army Corps of Engineers also deemed the permits appropriate, Molligan said.

Said Lee, "We end up having to challenge decisions made by those agencies all the time."