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Pasco on verge of extending Ridge Road after two-decade fight

The federal government has finally blessed the long-awaited corridor. But environmental groups vow to keep fighting.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco County is about to fulfill its two-decade-long quest to build the Ridge Road Extension: The federal government says the new highway can go through an environmental preserve in central and western Pasco.

Environmentalists have already said they will challenge the permit authorized Friday afternoon by the Army Corps of Engineers allowing the four-lane highway to traverse the 6,533-acre Serenova Preserve west of the Suncoast Parkway.

But county plans to have construction crews on site within days and commissioners previously agreed to a $55,000 contract to retain a Tallahassee law firm to fend off more legal objections.

Map of the planned Ridge Road Extension in Pasco County.

The concept of extending Ridge Road eight miles from its current terminus at Moon Lake Road to Land O’ Lakes,⁠ providing a third east-west route to complement State Roads 52 and 54 ⁠— dates to the onset of state-required growth-management planning more than 30 years ago.

When completed, the road would provide an alternative link between U.S. 19 in west Pasco and U.S. 41 in the middle of the county.

"We thought it needed to be built whether or not there was going to be development around it. It was a road that needed to get built,’’ said Dara Khoyi of Lutz, a member of the citizens committee that helped craft the county’s first state-mandated land-use plan in the late 1980s.

The need was amplified, he said, by memories of the unpredictable path of Hurricane Elena in 1985 that triggered coastal evacuations.

“We’re not talking about development here. We’re talking about quality of life and east-west movement for people under normal times and under emergency times,’’ said Khoyi who later was general manager of the Otto Pottberg Trust that sold the Serenova land to the state.

Related: Mark your calendars, Pasco targets opening of Ridge Road

The county submitted its first request for the federal permit in 1998. It languished without a decision for so long that it turned into the longest-pending application in the Army Corps history. The county reworked its bid in 2000, but eventually withdrew the application. The county filed a new request in 2015 written by its Washington D.C. consultants Dawson & Associates.

The push back from the 70-member Save Our Serenova Coalition and other environmental advocates comes because of the highway’s route through the Serenova Preserve,

The property had been owned by the Otto Pottberg Trust which received county approval in 1992 to turn the 6,533-acre ranch into Serenova, a planned development of nearly 6,500 homes and 679 acres of commercial and industrial space. The state, however, purchased the entire ranch to offset environmental damages tied to the Suncoast Parkway construction in the 1990s. As part of the deal, the state did not object to the highway’s construction through the preserve.

Related: Pasco traffic delay has lasted 20 years

But plenty of other people did, with critics saying the road no longer was needed since the shelved Serenova development meant thousands of new auto-driving residents wouldn’t be flooding the area. Opponents also scoff at the rationale that the highway is needed as an emergency evacuation route.

Frequent critic Daniel Callahan of New Port Richey told Pasco commissioners in October the Ridge Road Extension was "a highway to nowhere but new development; a highway that most Pasco citizens will never use, a highway that is not truly needed as a hurricane evacuation route that you Chicken Littles constantly cluck about without a shred of evidence that it is needed or wanted.''

And the Suncoast Sierra Club noted Pasco residents evacuated just fine without the new highway during Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

The design for the Ridge Road Extension calls for the first leg of the road, 4.2 miles from Moon Lake Road to the parkway, to be limited access and elevated through the preserve via 18 bridges. Projected construction costs are listed at just less than $68 million. The county says it already had spent more than $16 million on permitting, right of way, lobbyists, wetland mitigation and other expenses that will push the total price to just less than $90 million.

Related: Army Corps okays Pasco's Ridge Road route, but more study needed

The second portion, 3.4 miles from the parkway east to U.S. 41 would be built at-grade with developers picking up the cost. The Florida Turnpike Authority is responsible for the $15 million interchange with the parkway, which is considered key to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer and Research Center’s planned expansion to Pasco.

Moffitt is seeking $191 million in additional cigarette tax revenue from the state starting in 2023 to build a Pasco research park to meet the demand for cancer therapy while creating space for bio-tech company partners. The wellness campus would be in an 800-acre office park within Lennar’s Angeline development on land the home-building giant acquired last year from the Bexley family. The Ridge Road Extension would go through that property before culminating at the entrance of the Lennar-owned Connerton development east of U.S. 41.

The county previously said it hoped to have first four lanes of highway, between Moon Lake Road and Town Center Boulevard, open within 11 months of obtaining the permit.

Environmentalists have said they will continue their objections to the Ridge Road Extension because it traverses the 6,533-acre Serenova Preserve, [ Tampa Bay Times ]