Pasco County officials are hoping a letter of support from Gov. Rick Scott, and an executive order from President Donald Trump, could finally lead to a permit to build the Ridge Road extension.
For 19 years, the county has pursued the permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an approximately 8-mile road extension that would cut through a portion of the Serenova Preserve. The road extension is a high priority for the county to give residents an additional evacuation route during hurricanes.
But, critics of the project vow to fight an extension of the road.
Clay Colson, chairman of the nonprofit Citizens for Sanity Inc., said development, not a hurricane route, is behind the county’s efforts to extend Ridge Road through the preserve.
“The county had this idea of entitlement,” he said. “They think they are entitled to the permit.”
A county delegation, including Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker and Pasco County commissioners Kathryn Starkey and Jack Mariano, went to Washington D.C., in early March, to lobby for the project.
During an unexpected meetup with the governor, Baker asked him to write a letter supporting the project.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis also wrote a letter of support and sent it to President Trump.
According to the president’s executive order, the White House Council on Environmental Quality would have 30 days to respond to the governor’s request for priority status for Ridge Road.
Scott’s office has not responded to The Laker/Lutz News to inquiries about the letter.
The president’s executive order directs federal agencies to give priority to longstanding infrastructure projects with pending environmental reviews.
“The wheels are definitely moving to try and get it finalized,” Baker said, during the March 7 county commission meeting in Dade City.
Besides running into Scott, the group also met Ted Boling, the acting director of the White House’s council on environmental quality.
While the county may be making progress toward obtaining the permit, opponents of the road say construction of the road should not be about political pressure from letters and executive orders.
“They (federal agencies) are supposed to do their job,” Colson said.
His group and others will file a lawsuit, if the permit is granted, Colson said.
The county initially submitted its application for Ridge Road in 1998. The road dead-ends at Moon Lake Road in New Port Richey. The extension would provide a link to U.S. 41, with a connection to Suncoast Parkway in Land O’ Lakes.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reviews permit applications to determine if projects meet regulations within the Clean Water Act. If approved, projects should do a minimum of damage to the environment.
About 58 acres of the 6,000-acre Serenova Preserve are under review. The land was set aside years ago to mitigate about 200 acres of wetlands lost due to construction of the Suncoast parkway.
An elevated road design to limit environmental damage is among potential alternatives for how the road extension would be built.
Over the years, environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, have opposed the Ridge Road project, saying it would destroy wildlife habitat and degrade water quality.
Pasco commissioners hired Washington D.C. consultants with Dawson & Associates in 2016 to lobby for the permit. The county is paying the firm about $28,000 a month.
The costs expended on the project so far, including land acquisitions and consultants, is about $19 million.
Published March 15, 2017