By Kyle LoJacono
The extension of Ridge Road has been in the works for 12 years and a recent move by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will ensure more waiting for the project.
The engineers put the brakes on the plan in part because of cattle owned by landowner Ted Phillips. Pasco County plans would have allowed Phillips to continue hunting and herding the animals on his land, 4G Ranch, in the project area.
Spokesman for the engineers Chuck Schnepel said the loss of wetlands in the project area would be too great as currently planned without converting the ranch into a preserve.
Southwest Florida Water Management District spokeswoman Robyn Felix said it is the county’s responsibility to mitigate the impacts to the wetlands.
“Under their current permit application, they are proposing to convey 221 acres of floodplain wetlands along the Pithlachascotee River to the district for preservation,” Felix said. “They are proposing to purchase an 804-acre conservation easement on the 4G Ranch, which would provide a critical wildlife corridor between the district’s Conner Preserve and the Cross Bar/Albar Ranch.”
The current proposed cost is $77 million, but that number will likely change to reduce the impact on the wetlands. Felix said extension would be a huge impact on the area’s environment.
“The extension is expected to permanently impact 44 acres of wetlands and temporarily impact 3.5 acres of wetlands,” Felix said. “The Suncoast Parkway interchange with Ridge Road is expected to impact 12 acres of wetlands. Because this is a very large project there a variety of different types of wetlands, forested wetlands with cypress heads, isolated marshes and scrubby wetlands, that will be impacted ranging from low to high quality.”
Pasco District 2 Commissioner Pat Mulieri said Phillips, “Was willing to give a conservation easement, but wanted to be able to hunt and or run cattle on the land. The corps graciously has given the county one year to renegotiate the mitigation with the owner of the 4G Ranch.”
If that one year expires, the county will have to submit new plans for the extension.
Mulieri, whose district includes all of Land O’ Lakes, expressed some irritation with the engineer’s ruling.
“Two years ago there was a belief that if we did certain things the issuance of the permit was eminent,” Mulieri said. “However, that did not happen. It has been frustrating because it appears that when staff accomplished what is asked for, something else is added.”
The project is the oldest job under review by the engineers in Florida. It is designed as an evacuation route to in part allow Land O’ Lakes and other central Pasco residents easier access to the Suncoast Parkway in the event of a disaster.
The plans are to extend Ridge Road from where it ends in New Port Richey west to the Suncoast in the first phase while adding an interchange, and later take it to US 41.
“This road is critical,” Mulieri said. “If there is a hurricane it will move people to the Suncoast. It is not just needed for hurricane evacuation, but movement of vehicles after any accident or disaster that would shut down US 41, (SR) 54 or (SR) 52.”
Critics of the project say it is only to way to open more development.
“An important aspect is that it will be a limited access road similar to the Suncoast,” Mulieri said of that criticism. “The board supported this concept a number of years ago to allay the concerns that this was just being built to open up more land for developers.”
While the road seems unable to open additional development, it would have a side benefit. It would provide a faster link between central and west Pasco, including easier access to Pasco-Hernando Community College’s (PHCC) New Port Richey campus located on Ridge Road.
“The road would definitely be a plus for PHCC,” Mulieri said. “Also Connerton and the commerce park would benefit.”
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