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Saga over Ridge Road extension continues into 16th year

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Early in 2013, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis urged federal regulators to help resolve the long-running regulatory stalemate over the Ridge Road extension project.

About 18 months later, Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, pondered if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers itself needs overhauled in handling permits as the Ridge Road extension application still drags on.

For more than 15 years, environmental reviews have stalled Pasco County’s plans to extend Ridge Road from its current eastern end at DeCubellis-Moon Lake Road to the Suncoast Parkway and, later, U.S. 41.

Pasco filed its original permit application in November 1998 with the Corps of Engineers, which conducts environmental reviews under the federal Clean Water Act.

Pasco commissioners maintain the road could provide another hurricane evacuation route while relieving traffic congestion.

While Corps officials have not responded, environmentalists here remain dead-set against the Ridge Road extension, which would cross wetlands. The would disrupt wildlife, the say.

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service also raised doubts about the necessity for the new road during aCorps of Engineers comment period last year.

Audubon Florida has urged its members to voice strong opposition as well. Audubon volunteers counted 69 species on the Serenova tract in a December 2011 count. The Ridge Road extension would pass through the Serenova Preserve, a sprawling tract that is home to many wildlife species.

Bilirakis, whose House district includes all of Pasco County, sent a letter Jan. 28, 2013, to Col. Ed Jackson, the commander of the South Atlantic Division of the Corps of Engineers, encouraging him to review the long delay. Corps officials in Jacksonville have been reviewing the Ridge Road extension permit.

“One of the biggest barriers to the project’s progress has been a lack of clarity and consistency in the standards the county needs to meet,” Bilirakis wrote.

Earlier in July, Bilirakis spoke on the House floor about the need to restructure the Corps of Engineers’ permitting process, citing decades of delays for the Ridge Road extension.

Bilirakis agrees with Pasco officials who maintain the extension would serve as a hurricane evacuation route.

In his remarks in the House, Bilirakis berated “stonewalling by the Corps, which continues to require a seemingly endless array of redundant and costly environmental reviews and evaluations.”

He added: “The Corps’ permitting protocol clearly needs to be modernized. As of now, it is a burdensome and unfair process that places the safety of my constituents in jeopardy.”.

Bilirakis advocated an amendment that would have stricken all funding for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, the appointee which oversees the Corps of Engineers.

House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, offered Bilirakis assurances that the committee will hold the Corps accountable.

In the meantime, Doug Tobin, Pasco County public information officer, provided a recap last week about Pasco’s latest actions to obtain a permit.

“Pasco County continues to experience healthy growth in residential and commercial development, he noted. “A considerable amount of that growth has been concentrated within a few miles of our coast with the Gulf of Mexico. The growth along the coast carries with it an increased need for mobility in the event a storm event requires an evacuation from any vulnerable areas.”

In early May the County Commission retained the services of a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that has a lot of experience dealing with the Corps of Engineers and other federal regulatory agencies. A month later the Corps withdrew the county’s Ridge Road extension permit request pending the completion of an analysis of possible alternative routes the agency ordered the county to conduct.

The alternative route analysis continues and the county will include it when it resubmits its permit request, in “a few months,” Tobin said.

People can sign up to receive emails regarding the Ridge Road Extension project through the Notify Me online system, Tobin said. Go to www.pascocountyfl.net/list.aspx and look for the checkbox for “Ridge Road Extension.”

corth@suncoastnews.com

(727) 815-1068

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