ARIPEKA - Pasco commissioners will not appeal a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ruling denying a permit to dredge a channel linking the proposed SunWest Park to the Gulf of Mexico.
Commissioner Jack Mariano pleaded with the board to file an administrative appeal because the Corps' district office in Jacksonville appeared to violate its own policies by denying the permit even though Gov. Rick Scott and his entire Cabinet had endorsed the project.
The 60-foot-wide channel would have allowed the county to construct seven boat ramps at the park, and it would have served as a major draw for a proposed private development, Sunwest Harbortown.
Corps spokeswoman Nancy Sticht said the district office had received more than 9,000 individual comments and petitions with more than 40,000 signatures requesting denial of the project. Environmental groups were united in their opposition.
Mariano argued that the case should have been elevated to the Corps' division office in Atlanta. But Chairman Ted Schrader and three other commissioners said winning the administrative appeal would be pointless if there was no reason to think the outcome would be any different.
"The litmus test for me is would I spend my own money to do this, and the answer is no," Schrader said.
Worse, the county would have risked antagonizing the agency that has yet to issue permits for the controversial Ridge Road extension. The county also has a permit application pending to address flooding in the Trinity- Thousand Oaks area.
"We have three major items before the Corps of Engineers, and Ridge Road is the most important," Commissioner Pat Mulieri said. "Jack, I'm sorry I have to disagree with you, but we need it more than a boat ramp."
Commissioners voted to focus instead on a redesigned SunWest Park, but that decision sparked a heated debate over the project's escalating costs.
Commissioners had earmarked nearly $5 million for the SunWest project after selecting the Orlando-based Wake Park Project to develop an extreme water sports facility on the former quarry. However, the permitting issues with the Corps delayed the project for more than a year and forced the county to redesign the park, putting it nearly $600,000 over budget.
The new plan reconfigures the entrance and parking areas to eliminate any effects on wetlands, removing the park from the Corps' jurisdiction. Mariano said it will create more beaches along the freshwater lake. Another added bonus will be an amphitheater for live music.
Other commissioners got a case of sticker shock when they saw the $1.6 million estimate to complete a second phase of the park, which includes a boardwalk and commercial building, among other improvements.
On Tuesday, acting County Administrator Michele Baker asked the board to approve a $132,499 contract with a Tampa engineering firm to redesign the park and oversee its construction.
"We are not asking the board for additional money for construction," Baker said. "There is potential it will exceed the allocation you have already approved. Those funds would have to come from either impact fees or some other source."
Commissioners Mulieri, Henry Wilson and Kathryn Starkey agreed to pay for the design of both phases but said they would not divert any park impact fee money from a new regional park at Starkey Ranch to SunWest.
"I'm OK with doing the design as long as it doesn't obligate us to spend the additional $2 million," Wilson said.