Sierra Club of Florida expands legal concerns over Pasco road project

Federal agencies didn’t do their jobs before permitting the project through the Serenova Preserve, Sierra Club argues.
The Sierra Club is suing federal environmental regulators to try to block the extension of Ridge Road in Pasco County through a nature preserve.
The Sierra Club is suing federal environmental regulators to try to block the extension of Ridge Road in Pasco County through a nature preserve. [ C.T. Bowen | Times ]
Published Sept. 18, 2020

NEW PORT RICHEY — Already in litigation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the controversial Ridge Road Extension, the Sierra Club of Florida has given notice that it is expanding its legal challenges of that agency’s permitting and adding similar concerns about the job done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A 22-page Notice of Intent letter sent earlier this month to both the permitting agencies concludes, “Federal action to protect the listed species in the Serenova Preserve is wholly inadequate.”

The road construction began earlier this year. The Sierra Club and Dan Rametta, a local resident who is party to the cases, originally sought an injunction to stop work to extend the four-lane road eight miles from Moon Lake Road, past the Suncoast Parkway to U.S. 41.

A federal judge denied that injunction in March and that case continues.

The Sierra Club argued in the first case that the Army Corps failed to follow the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The new allegation, explained Sierra Club attorney Sarah Hayter, is that the Army Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service did not follow the Endangered Species Act.

The notice of intent gives the agencies time to act to fix the problem and puts them on notice that the Sierra Club could file a lawsuit 60 days after if the concerns are not resolved. If that happens, Hayter noted that the hope would be to consolidate the two actions into one.

The notice outlines what the organization believes are flaws in the official biological opinion done by the Fish and Wildlife Service on how the project would impact the Eastern indigo snake. It also argues that the agencies also bypassed a portion of the required process to assess the impact on other threatened species, the Florida scrub jay and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

“A lot of damage has already been done. Gopher tortoise burrows and Eastern indigo snake habitat have been destroyed,” said Rametta, a longtime opponent of the Ridge Road Extension. “Hopefully the judge will implement a stop-work injunction immediately. We would then like to see the area returned to its natural state.”

“Congress passed the Endangered Species Act nearly 50 years ago. We are currently facing a massive global extinction of species. Upholding this bedrock environmental law is more important than ever,” said Tim Martin, conservation chair for the Sierra Club of Florida.

Pasco County officials, who have intervened in the first case, maintain that the road project is a much-needed east to west road which will help with hurricane evacuation. But opponents argue that it is being built to open up previously-inaccessible rural areas to future development.

The state acquired the Serenova Preserve, a former ranch set for a large commercial and residential development, in the 1990s to offset the environmental damage from construction of the Suncoast Parkway. As part of the acquisition, the state’s water management district did not object to Ridge Road’s path through the preserve.