NEW PORT RICHEY — After 13 frustrating years, Pasco County is still no closer to getting a permit for the controversial Ridge Road extension. So commissioners voted this week to get outside help from a high-powered Washington D.C. environmental firm.
County Administrator Michele Baker said Pasco needs the expertise from Dawson & Associates to help break the gridlock with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which rejected the county’s latest submittal. Dawson & Associates describes itself as “the nation’s premier firm for resolving complex challenges involving federal water resources and environmental regulatory policy and procedures.”
The company’s website boasts its deep ties to the USACE. “Collectively, our firm’s members have spent a combined total of more than 500 years serving in the Corps. This service includes command and senior management of multiple Corps of Engineer Districts and Divisions nationwide, as well as the entire Corps.”
While Dawson is a registered lobbyist, Baker stressed that the county was hiring the firm to conduct a one-month review of its Corps application and to advise the county on how best to proceed. “They’re retired regulators,” Baker told commissioners. “It has never been our desire to lobby our way to a permit. We’re hoping they can identify for us why is it that we and Corps aren’t on the same page.”
The initial review cost $38,500. Baker said if the board elects to hire Dawson as a subcontractor, it would cost the same amount each month to keep them on retainer. But that’s a fraction of the $17 million the county already has expended on the project.
“I think you have to do something. We’ve been struggling and struggling,” Commissioner Pat Mulieri said.
Ridge Road currently dead-ends at Moon Lake Road-De Cubellis Road. Pasco County has proposed extending the road east by eight miles to the Suncoast Parkway and later to U.S. 41. Opponents view the proposed road through the 6,000-acre Serenova Tract as an intrusion into a delicate wildlife area and a vehicle for overdevelopment in Pasco.
The EPA has recommended denial of the permit, saying it would have “substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts” on an aquatic resource of national importance.
The road was expected to cost about $65 million to build. Baker said the county ruled out any alternatives that cost more than 150-percent of that figure - that includes elevating the 2.1-mile segment through the Serenova Preserve.
Baker said the fully elevated option would triple the cost, and the only way to make it feasible would be to have a private company build it as a toll road. “Or we could do a partially elevated road for $77 million, and it would reduce the wetland impact,” she said. “That was included in our alternatives analysis.”