Environmentalists still opposing Ridge extension

Ridge Road ends abruptly at its nexus at Moon Lake Road and Decubellis Road. After 18 years, Pasco commissioners are hopeful that federal regulators will issue a decision within the next few months, but environmentalists renew objections.

NEW PORT RICHEY — Approaching two decades of debate, the saga to build the Ridge Road extension could soon take more twists and turns.

After a recent lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., Pasco County commissioners commented this month about their optimism over chances of jump-starting the stalled project. They insist it’s needed as a third hurricane evacuation route.

However, opponents still strenuously object to the possible impact to the wildlife and environment if the road is built. Clay Colson, a board director and water issues chair for Citizens for Sanity, also thinks a Ridge extension would only encourage overdevelopment here. And he challenges notions of the value of a Ridge extension for evacuations.

Colson has corresponded with federal regulators several times since February to renew objections.

After President Trump issued an executive order to hasten evaluations of high-priority infrastructure projects, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, wrote a letter to the president to urge him to include the long-delayed Ridge extension. Plus, commissioners were told last month that regulators are expediting reviews.

Originally proposed in November 1998, the Ridge extension would continue the east-west road past the point where it ends now, at Moon Lake Road and DeCubellis Road, east of New Port Richey, to the Suncoast Parkway. A possible second phase would extend Ridge Road farther to the East, to U.S. 14.

However, routes have passed through sensitive wetlands of the former Serenova Tract, which has been the major stumbling block during reviews by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers has regulatory jurisdiction over the Ridge Road extension under the federal Clean Water Act.

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service raised doubts about the necessity for the new road during an Army Corps comment period in 2013.

Audubon Florida rallied all its members to voice strong opposition as well. Audubon volunteers counted 69 species in 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.

“Public need over corporate greed,” Colson wrote at the end of his Feb. 6 letter to Col. Donald Jackson, commander of the South Atlantic Division of the Army Corps, based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Colson believes Bilirakis’ letter is “fraught with error and misinformation.”

Many practical alternatives exist to the Ridge Road extension, Colson argued, such as a proposed elevated version of S.R. 54 and 56, the Tower Road extension and the widening of S.R. 52.

Colson challenges the value of the Ridge extension as a hurricane evacuation route, which he believes would only create bottlenecks on U.S. 41 at S.R. 52 and 54.

“This has been the longest running permit application in the Corps history,” Colson commented, for which he blames Pasco officials for surveys and studies that are now outdated. “The county should be held to the present-day standards and review,” Colson argues.

Federal fish and wildlife regulators have deemed the wetlands of the Serenova preserve as an Aquatic Resource of National Importance because of their value to the watershed, Colson pointed out.

“Finally, the extension of Ridge Road is not necessary or needed, whereas the continued preservation of Serenova in its pristine state is tantamount to our quality of life and water resources,” Colson concluded.

Since Pasco has promoted itself with the slogan “It’s Only Natural,” Colson advises Pasco officials to heed the words of former Gov. Ruben Askew, a Democrat, who said, “Ecological destruction in Florida is nothing less than economic suicide.”