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Serenova’s Song: Understanding Pasco County’s Ridge Road Extension Project

By Guest Author Posted on March 5, 2020

Editor’s Note: We are varying from our traditional subject matter to help our readers understand the Ridge Road Extension project in Pasco County – how it came to be, who the players are, and why we have such a project in the area. It is a controversial project because part of a proposed roadway goes through an environmentally sensitive area. This scenario is becoming more and more common as the State of Florida is developed, so it may be helpful to see an objective analysis of a difficult situation. We thank Paul Herman, Publisher of Florida Nature Coast for his thoughtful analysis and research contribution to NatureCoaster.com and suggest to all our readers that you check out his site for wonderful videos of Florida’s Nature Coast.

The “Ridge Road Extension” is an arterial road project in west Pasco County, Florida, designed to extend Ridge Road from the intersection of Moon Lake Road eastward to U.S. Highway 41. It was envisioned in the late 1980s as part of Pasco County’s first state-mandated land plan. Burgeoning growth in densely populated west Pasco was expected to overwhelm existing traffic routes connecting to U.S. 41 and I-75. At that time, the only two east-west arterial roads in Pasco County were S.R. 54 and S.R. 52. An additional concern was the ability to evacuate coastal communities in the event of a major hurricane.

Permit plans for the Suncoast Parkway were submitted in 1992 to connect to the Veteran’s Expressway north through Pasco County. This proposed path intersected the planned Ridge Road Extension.

To obtain approval for the Suncoast Parkway, the Florida Turnpike Enterprise needed to mitigate the environmental impacts of the project. They accomplished this by buying two huge parcels of land west and adjacent to the Parkway’s route: the Anclote River Ranch Tract south of Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park, and the Pottberg Ranch to the north of the park.

The Pottberg Ranch was owned by the Otto Pottberg Trust, which obtained approval to subdivide the land to create a planned community named “Serenova”. The development would contain nearly 6,500 single-family homes and 679 acres of commercial and industrial space. The Serenova Development of Regional Impact agreement of 1992 included in its roadway plans the construction of the Ridge Road Extension at some future date.

Instead, the Pottberg Trust sold the entire tract to the State to mitigate the effects of the Suncoast Parkway. The land was titled to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, combined with the Anclote River Ranch Tract into the 19,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Preserve. In August of 1994, the final environmental impact statement and plan for the Suncoast Parkway included an overpass and interchange 3.2 miles south of S.R. 52 for the future Ridge Road Extension.

An overpass was built in the Suncoast Parkway at the proposed intersection of Ridge Road. Image courtesy of Paul Herman.

Pasco County negotiated an agreement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District in March 1991 to obtain its assurance that the right-of-way for the road project would be transferred to the County, subject to the County obtaining other necessary permits.

Pasco County submits Ridge Road Extension Permit Request in 1998

In 1998, Pasco County submitted permit requests to both the Southwest Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Ridge Road Extension. In 2003 the Southwest Florida Water Management District approved the project, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been more deliberative. On December 20, 2019, they issued the permit that allowed the project to commence.

Understanding Phase One of the Ridge Road Extension Parkway is easier with a visual. Paul Herman created this to help illustrate the land in question and the project’s scope.

Two Phases: One Controversy

The proposed plan consisted of two phases. Phase 1 extends 4.2 miles from the intersection of Ridge Road and Moon Lake Road to the Suncoast Parkway interchange. This would include 2.6 miles of limited access highway across the Serenova Tract, where wetlands require a number of bridges and wildlife crossings. The cost of phase 1 was estimated to be $68 million dollars.

Phase 2 includes the section from the Suncoast Parkway to U.S. Highway 41 where it intersects with Connerton Boulevard. That portion is intended as a standard arterial roadway built at grade with a number of intersections and traffic signals. The cost of Phase 2 is supposed to be paid by developers in the area whose projects the road would benefit. In addition to Phases 1 and 2, the actual interchange at the Suncoast Parkway is slated to be funded by the Florida Turnpike Enterprise.

The Ridge Road Extension project was planned with 2 phases. Phase two crosses privately held land already planned for development. Phase one goes through the Serenova Preserve and has been controversial. Image courtesy of Paul Herman.

Phase 2 has not been controversial. It traverses land already held and planned for development by private landowners. The Lennar/Newland Corporations will benefit most from Phase 2 of the project since their sprawling Bexley Ranch development borders the proposed path of the Ridge Road Extension and extends all the way south to S.R. 54. Bexley is slated to include an 800-acre commerce park anchored by a new H. Lee Moffitt Cancer and Research Center. The new road project will provide tenants of their commercial complex direct access via the Suncoast Parkway to the Tampa International Airport and the larger Tampa Bay area.

The Longest Pending Permit Application in the History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Concern for native wildlife is strong in the fight against Phase One. Image courtesy of Pat Manfredo.

Phase 1 of the Ridge Road Extension has been beset with problems since the start. This is due to environmental concerns about the 2.6-mile portion that cuts across the middle of the Serenova Tract of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve. Various groups, including Audubon of Florida, the West Pasco Audubon Society, “Save Our Serenova” coalition of the Suncoast Sierra Club, and Citizens for Sanity have been active in fighting the project with protests and in court.

Efforts to derail or delay the project have resulted in this being the longest pending permit application in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Pasco County had spent $16 million on the project before final permits were approved.

Pros and Cons of Pasco County’s Ridge Road Extension

There are certainly pros and cons to the Ridge Road Extension. Pasco County insists the road is needed to handle the increased traffic load and for hurricane evacuation. Pasco County points to the fact that plans for the road were part of the original mitigation plans for permitting the Suncoast Parkway project.

Detractors argue that building an expressway through protected wetlands will endanger wildlife, have a negative effect on drainage, and is simply not needed.

Us Army Corps Engineers incorporated public opinion into their permit process. Image courtesy of Us Army Corps of Engineers

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Used Public Input

Soon after Pasco County applied for permits, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the first public notice for the project seeking public input. The response was immediate, and they paid attention.

After receipt of the original permit application, the Corps requested changes and additional information from the County numerous times including October 2001, April 2005, July 2006, January 2007, January 2010, and July 2010. In November 2010, Pasco County withdrew their original permit application, resubmitting a new updated version in early 2011, that took much of the feedback into account.

In May 2011 the Corps issued another public notice and request for input. Over the next few years, they collected testimony from nearly 2,000 persons and organizations regarding the project, with some praising the project and some asking for denial of the permit.

The changes Pasco County made to the permit application in the 2011 submission did not affect the overall scope or significance of the project. But they showed a willingness to accommodate some of the concerns brought forth.

Additional changes were also submitted in the years between 2011 and 2018 to accommodate requests by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers based on public input. The proposed wetland impacts were reduced by narrowing the road median widths and reducing the space needed for embankments. Additional bridges were added, and three bridges were lengthened over wetland areas. Additional mitigation was also agreed upon, with the result being that Pasco County will be purchasing mitigation credits from the Old Florida Mitigation Bank.

Ridge Road Extension Project will affect Endangered Species

Those opposing the Ridge Road Extension project are particularly worried about its impact on endangered species. Some, like the black bear and Florida panther, are not known to exist in the affected area. But the eastern indigo snake and the gopher tortoise are affected.

indigo snake
Indigo snakes are often found in Gopher Tortoise burrows. 360 species use these burrows for their home or a refuge from storms and predators. Image courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Final project guidelines include a detailed description of how each of these animals when discovered in the affected area, must be handled and relocated. In the case of the indigo snake, the “affected area” extends a mile in any direction from the construction area, since indigo snakes are known to range that far.

Aside from the conflicts and controversy surrounding this project, many people are grateful to see it commence. Most people who live in the communities of west Pasco County understand that it will help to alleviate traffic on S.R. 54, S.R. 52, and Little Road. Still, some fear that the new road will help to encourage additional development that will make things worse again.

Many will enjoy utilizing the bike/hiking trail designed to run parallel to the Ridge Road Extension all the way east to the Suncoast Trail.

MabelAmber / Pixabay

Whichever way you feel about this controversial project, it is hard to imagine that the Ridge Road Extension is not a “done deal” at this point. Construction has begun, and, as of this writing, the roadway has already been cleared over a mile to the western edge of the Serenova Tract. The Sierra Club recently sought an injunction to stop construction while negotiations continue, but on February 14, 2020 that injunction was struck down by a federal judge.

Public Input has Affected the Ridge Road Extension Project

Those concerned about the environment and threats to endangered species should, however, not despair at what appears to be a gloomy outcome to this issue. We HAVE HAD AN IMPACT — a major impact.

The project is proceeding, but a host of changes and updates have been made due to the public concern for issues that are important to us. Now it is time to keep a close eye on the Ridge Road Extension project to make sure the County and the contractors they hire live up to the conditions stipulated in the permits.

Resources

Comments

Ron says

Oh Please, How much land was taken from the wildlife on SR 54 developments? Where did the wildlife go? Can not even see the beach in Pinellas County and coyotes run the county now! Where did the wildlife protectors go??? Thousands of Sand Hill Cranes were displaced by subdivisions on SR 54 and even more developments! More tax base and less wildlife left everywhere!!!

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suze says

This is NOT needed and will NOT be an evacuation route. Just a road to Connection where the new jail and government buildings will be along with much to much housing that will put money into developers and commissioners pockets. This MUST NOT HAPPEN!

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Ken says

More damage to the aquifer. More damage to wildlife. The only group benefiting are the developers.

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Marjjj says

Where roads go, so do houses, high rises and more shopping centers. Those lead to more congestion, more blacktop, more drains on available resources.

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