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Saturday, Nov 22, 2014
Community News

Bilirakis pushes for road permit

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Early last year, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis asked federal regulators to help resolve a long-running regulatory stalemate over the Ridge Road extension project.

About 18 months later Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, criticized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as permitting for the Ridge Road extension drags on.

For more than 15 years environmental reviews have stalled Pasco County’s desire to extend Ridge Road from its existing eastern terminus at DeCubellis-Moon Lake Road to the Suncoast Parkway; and, later, to 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 say the road would provide another hurricane evacuation route and also relieve traffic congestion.

Although Corps officials have not responded, environmentalists strongly oppose the Ridge Road extension, largely because they maintain it would cross wetlands and disrupt wildlife.

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 a Corps of Engineers comment period last year.

Audubon Florida has urged its members, too, to oppose the plan. 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, in January 2013 sent a letter to Col. Ed Jackson, commander of the South Atlantic Division of the Corps of Engineers, encouraging him to review the long delay. Corps officials in Jacksonville are handling 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.

Bilirakis last summer 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.”

Meanwhile Doug Tobin, Pasco’s public information officer, last week provided a recap of Pasco’s latest actions to obtain a permit.

“Pasco County continues to experience healthy growth in residential and commercial development,” he said. “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 May the county commission hired a consulting firm that has 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; the county will include it when resubmitting 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 check the box for “Ridge Road Extension.”

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