The Sierra Club Florida Conservation has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for issuing a permit to Pasco County, to allow the construction of an extension of Ridge Road.
The legal action aims to halt the project, which is a 9-mile corridor that would add an additional transportation link in the county.
The extension would give another option to motorists who now travel east-west across the county, using State Road 54 and State Road 52.
The new link will reduce traffic on those other corridors, and it provides another evacuation route in the event of an emergency, according to Pasco County officials.
Plans call for the corridor to be lengthened from New Port Richey to the Suncoast Parkway, then further east to U.S. 41.
Ridge Road also would extend through the Serenova Tract of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve.
Currently, land is being cleared to establish what will be the new roadway, heading toward the wetlands.
Environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club, argue that going through that tract will be detrimental to the wetlands and the wildlife that live in the preserve.
However, county officials assure that cautionary measures will be taken to minimize impacts.
The new roadway would be incorporated with 16 bridges that overpass wetlands.
Guardrails also would be installed to keep wildlife from entering onto the roadway.
This would lessen impacts to the Serenova Tract by 83%, said Sam Beneck, Pasco County project manager.
“We did understand that this was a project that was very significant to [the] Sierra Club,” he noted.
In regards to the lawsuit, filed on Feb. 6, the county anticipated that the “challenge was likely, and so did the Army Corps,” Beneck said.
Tim Martin is a member of the Sierra Club, and issued the press release announcing the legal action against the federal agency.
“We feel that the Army Corps has made some serious mistakes and violations of federal regulations in granting this permit. I think we have a very strong case proving that,” Martin said.
The 59-page lawsuit contends that the Army Corps breached the National Environmental Policy Act – neglecting “to adequately evaluate the direct, indirect, and cumulative harm to threatened and endangered species, their habitats, and wetlands located within RRE (Ridge Road extension) permit area of impact.”
Martin said this speaks directly to the removal of gopher tortoises from the Serenova Tract, and its resulting implications.
The county has been working in conjunction with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, to find another suitable habitat for the tortoises so they are not harmed during the extension project.
However, the Sierra Club has pushed back, stating that removal of the tortoises will only cause greater harm.
“When you remove the gopher tortoise burrows, you’re not just picking up tortoises and moving them to another park in South Florida,” Martin said. “You’re actually destroying this highly evolved, very critical habitat that 350-plus species depend on for survival.”
The extension project also has received the backing of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis who has been a staunch advocate for the roadway. He implored the Army Corps to issue a permit. And, in 2017, Bilirakis sent a letter to President Donald Trump, asking him to make the extension’s completion a priority.
Earlier this year, Bilirakis joined Pasco County officials during the project’s ribbon cutting ceremony.
There he explained the corridor’s importance to residents when faced with a natural disaster.
But, Martin contends that Ridge Road would not be a viable alternative for an evacuation route.
During Hurricane Irma, U.S. 19, which runs north and south from Pasco County into neighboring counties, did not have overcapacity and would have been a more suitable route, Martin said.
The documentation also claims that the Army Corps violated another law that requires that a least-damaging alternative be taken to sustain water-related ecosystems.
There were other locations for the corridor that would have caused less damage, Martin said.
Elise Mysels belongs to the Pasco Activists group, which has worked alongside the Sierra Club in resisting the extension.
She said that she is not against the county building a third corridor, but it shouldn’t be Ridge Road because of the wetlands it will cross.
“What they are basically proposing is to go in and fill 40 acres to allow for this highway to go in,” Mysels said.
She attended the gopher tortoise vigil held at the current dead-end of Ridge Road, where it intersects with DeCubellis Road and Moon Lake Road, in New Port Richey.
Environmentalists rallied at the intersection on Feb. 9, holding protest signs and encouraging passersby to get involved in the cause.
Legal action followed a two-decade wait for the permit to be issued.
Published February 19, 2020