ARIPEKA — Federal environmental regulators are slowing down plans to dig a deep-water channel between Pasco County-owned SunWest Park and the Gulf of Mexico.
The county's May 18 application for an Army Corps of Engineers permit to dredge a 60-foot wide channel through Fillman's Bayou too closely resembles a previously rejected proposal, the corps indicated in a Nov. 10 letter to County Administrator Michele Baker.
"The factual circumstances relating to the proposed activity have not changed since the October 2014 denial with prejudice, and the permit application does not propose a significant decrease in impact to (submerged aquatic vegetation) from the previously proposed project,'' wrote Army Col. Jason A. Kirk, commander of the corps' Jacksonville District.
The corps suspended further review of the county's application until a potentially costly and time-consuming environmental impact statement is submitted. Under federal rules, the study must be conducted by a third-party contractor answerable to the corps.
The letter to Baker came two weeks after Army Corps officials visited Pasco County to get a firsthand look at the proposed dredge site. Kirk told the county then that an environmental impact statement would be required, said Commissioner Jack Mariano.
"We knew it was coming that this would be the way to go in an abundance of caution. No surprise,'' said Mariano, whose district includes the site.
In its May application, county consultant BC Peabody proposed a shallower, shorter and realigned channel that would damage up to 45 percent less sea grass than the earlier plan the corps rejected in 2013 and denied again in 2014 after a county appeal.
The new proposal, however, still could damage 14.6 acres of sea grass.
"The magnitude of such a direct and indirect impact ... for a county recreational boat access channel is still significant and unprecedented in the context of the proposed location,'' Kirk wrote.
The environmental study — not required as part of the previous application — is being mandated now because the corps said the dredge could potentially damage "biological resources including special aquatic sites, endangered species, navigation, essential fish habitat, conservation, water quality, aesthetics and climate change.''
Mariano remained optimistic, but environmentalists suggested the required study could be a death knell for the project.
"It is difficult and expensive to actually follow through with an environmental impact statement,'' said St. Petersburg attorney Thomas W. Reese, who represented the Florida Wildlife Federation in objecting to the previous application. "It's sort of polite way of saying, 'You're blowing in the wind.' "
"It appears the Army Corps of Engineers is using its favorite tactic — delay is a form of denial,'' said Mac Davis of Aripeka and the Gulf Coast Conservancy.
The initial application generated substantial opposition from environmentalists, who said the proposed dredge would damage sea grass and near-shore flats fisheries. In denying the request, the corps said digging the channel was not in the public's best interest and that other recreational boating alternatives exist.
The current permit application is signed by the county, but is being financed by Gary Grubbs, owner of the adjoining property targeted for an upscale resort and housing development called Sunwest Harbourtowne. Baker, the county administrator, said via email that the county had not yet determined a possible cost or time frame for completing the study if Grubbs agrees to pick up the expense.
"If Mr. Grubbs chooses not to provide funding, I will give the board the option of funding the (environmental impact statement), but I will not recommend it, in light of all the other unfunded park priorities,'' Baker said.
Grubbs did not immediately return a message seeking comment, but Mariano said he was confident Grubbs would finance the new expense.
"I think the cost will be picked up by Gary Grubbs,'' said Mariano. "It's a great asset to the community and a great asset to his product down the road.''
The county is seeking the deeper channel to accommodate boat traffic from seven public boat ramps planned for SunWest Park. That privately operated park opened in 2015 minus the ramps. North of the channel sits a lime rock mine owned by Sunwest Acquisition, Grubbs' company, which proposes 2,500 homes, 250 hotel rooms, 300,000 square feet of commercial space, 400 boat slips and an 18-hole golf course on more than 1,000 acres.
If the permit is obtained, Grubbs or the eventual developers of Sunwest Harbourtowne would be responsible for the construction and mitigation costs of the dredge.