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Judge allows Suncoast 2 construction to proceed, paving over historic site

Archaeologist Scott Bierly holds a shard of pottery found at the Etna Camp, a Citrus County turpentine camp from the late 1800s that's on the National Historic Register but is now slated for destruction by the second leg of the Suncoast Parkway.  [CRAIG PITTMAN | Times]
Archaeologist Scott Bierly holds a shard of pottery found at the Etna Camp, a Citrus County turpentine camp from the late 1800s that's on the National Historic Register but is now slated for destruction by the second leg of the Suncoast Parkway. [CRAIG PITTMAN | Times]
Published Jul. 11, 2018

A federal judge's ruling has cleared the way for reviving construction of the controversial Suncoast 2 toll road in Citrus County, even though the road that would connect it to Interstate 75 has been put on the back burner.

Work on the road had been halted last month because of a temporary injunction from a federal judge. Thanks to the new court ruling, a spokeswoman for a consultant working on the road for the Florida Department of Transportation said Tuesday that construction on the Suncoast 2 "will resume by the end of the week."

The plaintiffs in the case say that this means nothing stands in the way of the DOT destroying the Etna Turpentine Camp, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

BACK STORY: Controversial toll road could wipe out historic turpentine camp.

Etna, once a town of 200 people, sits on state-owned land in the Withlacoochee State Forest. Archaeologists have discovered bricks, coins, toys and even the foundation of a turpentine still on the site. Despite its location and its historic nature, the DOT's plans call for running the new highway through it.

"At this time, the plan is to relocate the still foundation at Etna Turpentine Camp to the Withlacoochee State Forest Visitor Center or another suitable site before paving begins," spokeswoman Christine Girardin of engineering consultant WSP USA said in an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times.

The Suncoast 2 is designed to extend the existing Suncoast Parkway about 13 miles north from its current terminus at U.S. 98 in Hernando County to State Road 44 in Citrus County. Critics have dubbed the four-lane extension "the road to nowhere" because it will end in the middle of Citrus County, instead of heading west toward U.S. 19, or east toward Interstate 75.

However, the DOT had also begun planning a road called the Coastal Connector that would link the Suncoast 2 to I-75. The proposed routes for the Coastal Connector would have sliced through horse country near Ocala, which caused an uproar in Marion County's multi-million-dollar equine industry.

Because of so many protests, DOT Secretary Mike Dew recently postponed work on that highway, instead promising to put more time and money into improving I-75.

In its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in mid-June, a group called the Friends of Etna Camp sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its approval of the Suncoast 2 route. The agency approved the project even though it would threaten gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, both imperiled species, saying the impact on those species would not be significant.

The suit contends federal officials failed to do their jobs in reviewing the permit because they only considered the 1,300 acres covered by the Suncoast 2 portion of the project, and did not include the impact of the Coastal Connector.

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That argument persuaded U.S. District Judge James S. Moody, Jr. last month to grant a temporary restraining order halting construction on the Suncoast 2.

But that injunction just expired, and on Monday, U.S. District Magistrate Philip R. Lammens rejected the Etna group's request for a preliminary injunction. He ruled that the impact study did not need to consider both Suncoast 2 and the Coastal Connector.

The case could still proceed to trial in federal court, but in the meantime, "they are probably bulldozing Etna as quickly as they can," said Friends of Etna Camp president Bobby Roscow.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.