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Lawsuit may stall Suncoast Parkway extension

Light traffic heads north at rush hour on the Suncoast Parkway, just short of the roadway's end at the U.S. 98 exit. Times file (2002)
Light traffic heads north at rush hour on the Suncoast Parkway, just short of the roadway's end at the U.S. 98 exit. Times file (2002)
Published Dec. 21, 2017

BROOKSVILLE — A last-minute lawsuit may put the brakes on the long-awaited extension of the Suncoast Parkway north into Citrus County. Construction was slated to begin early next year.

At a Hernando-Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting last week, city and county officials talked about a push at the state level to move the project ahead even faster. A ground-breaking ceremony was in the works.

But like other steps in the process of building the toll road extension known as Suncoast Parkway 2, within days of that discussion, another shoe dropped.

On Dec. 15, the Friends of Etna Turpentine Camp, Inc., filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over documents it says the agency has failed to provide to the public. The documents support the permit allowing construction of the roadway.

The Etna Turpentine Camp was built in the early 1900s. It was a slave camp where convicts and African Americans were paid only with credits for use at the company store. The camp produced turpentine used primarily in shipbuilding, and the town had more than 50 buildings. The Parkway extension is slated to go through the land where the camp was located.

The Friends group sought the records to determine whether the agency took a hard enough look at the construction impacts on the historic area, "especially when the permit involves destruction of an archaeological site listed on the National Historic Register,'' according to a news release announcing the legal action.

The Friends group has been seeking documents under the Freedom of Information Act since August, according to the release.

"Etna Turpentine Camp is federally designated as a national treasure that is contracted to be destroyed forever, and we are being denied access to documents supporting the decision to do so," said Friends president Robert Roscow. "If we wait any longer for these documents, the die will be cast, and we will permanently lose a critical piece of our past without public review.

"The public has a right to know how the Fish and Wildlife Service came to its decision and whether that decision was arbitrary and capricious."

Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered no comment on the legal filing by the Tampa Bay Times deadline.

Roscow is one of a group of citizens who have fought the Parkway extension. In 2004, he was successful in a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Transportation after the agency refused to grant access to public meetings about the Parkway or disclose details of those meetings.

It's unclear how the legal action will impact the start of road construction, but the state's Turnpike Enterprise last month awarded a $135 million contract for the project to Lane Construction of Cheshire, Connecticut,. The 13-mile, four-lane toll road will stretch north from the current terminus at U.S. 98 to State Road 44 in Lecanto.

The project includes the construction of 15 bridges and the extension of the Suncoast Trail, according to a press release by the contractor. Construction is expected to take about four years.

During last week's discussion by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Hernando County Commissioner John Allocco said the state has pushed to move up the road extension, especially in light of what happened during Hurricane Irma in September.

Residents evacuating from south of Hernando and Citrus counties crowded onto the Suncoast Parkway. When they reached the end of the road at U.S. 98, they landed on Citrus County collector roads, turning highways such as U.S. 19 into slow-moving ribbons of traffic backed up for miles.

Citrus officials have long looked forward to having the Suncoast Parkway come into Citrus County because of the economic development it might bring. They also are eager to see the roadway eventually move beyond Citrus County borders.

Inverness City Council member Cabot McBride said there had been talk of routing the parkway all the way to Jacksonville.

"At one time that was a big deal, but now it has kind of faded,'' he said.

In recent months, state road officials have begun a new study to examine routing the parkway to U.S. 301 near Ocala. More details are not yet available, according to Dennis Dix, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

"I just think it's so important that we give relief to I-75'' somewhere north of Ocala, McBride said. "Otherwise we are shooting ourselves in the foot big time, and that's just stupid.''

Nick Nicholson, a Hernando County commissioner who served on a task force trying to relieve Interstate 75 crowding, said the group was thwarted when officials in Alachua County said they didn't want a major road routed through their area.

"We essentially wasted six months of our time,'' Nicholson said.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.