Pasco County is continuing with a road extension through a nature preserve despite a lawsuit by the Sierra Club; the environmental group is trying to protect the Serenova Preserve from the construction of an extension of Ridge Road.
Heidi Mehaffey is an attorney representing the Sierra Club. She’s an associate attorney with Robert N. Hartsell, P.A. and specializes in environmental law.
“The Serenova Preserve is part of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve and that spans about 6,000 acres through different counties. Pasco County is one of them.
“It’s one of the most ecologically beneficial areas in that part of Florida. It hosts a variety of endangered and threatened wildlife such as the Eastern indigo snake and the gopher tortoise.
“Pasco County has been in discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers for about 20 years-plus, attempting to build what is deemed the Ridge Road extension, which is a roadway. It’s about 8.6 miles that will traverse through a portion of the Serenova Preserve, clearing the wetlands there, constructing roadways and making a pathway through the Preserve which in our opinion is not needed and can cause extreme environmental damage.”
You have a lawsuit. What’s the status of that lawsuit?
“We filed a lawsuit on Feb. 6 of this year, challenging the Army Corps of Engineers permit that was issued to Pasco County on Dec. 20 of 2019, which is days before Christmas.
“We had to spend about a week trying to get our hands on all of the permit documents to be able to review. We got those documents about Dec. 27 of 2019 and diligently reviewed the decisional documents such as the environmental assessment, the biological assessment, the biological opinion and came to the conclusion that there were severe deficiencies under federal environmental laws that supported bringing a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers.”
You sent a letter to that effect essentially asking Pasco County to stop. Yet they’re continuing. What’s the risk to taxpayers with that?
“When we first filed our lawsuit, we also filed a motion for an emergency injunction asking the court to stay any further construction through the pendency of the lawsuit. The judge, unfortunately, denied our request which is understandable when you take into light that there’s multiple, multiple documents to have to review to be able to fully assess the case.
“At this point in time Pasco County is continuing construction. On March 24 of this year we sent them a letter advising them that it would be in the best interest of Pasco County to stay any further construction into the Serenova Preserve that could cause irreparable damage. That we believe we’re going to prevail and when prevail part of our requested relief will be for the court to order Pasco County to return the portions of the wetlands that have been destroyed back to its original state. Which will require extra funds to restore the wetlands, fill back in the wetlands, rehydrate, replant trees that have been pulled up.
“And all of this is going to be at the expense of Pasco County. So it’s in their best interest to focus their funds on other projects at the moment especially in this worldwide pandemic that we’re in right now to better support their citizens and to reduce the risk of further expenditure of funds after the lawsuit.”
Is there anything else that people should know about what the next steps are when it comes to Seranova Preserve?
“At this point in time, all of Florida is in a stay-at-home. It’s important to stay connected with our nature while we’re going through this pandemic. So recognizing that there are environmentally damaging actions happening by the commissioners in your county, in Pasco County, reaching out to them and imploring them to act prudently in this time and also to remember that each citizen does have a voice.
“The commissioners are there to represent the citizens not just themselves or corporations or developers that are going to benefit from this project as well.
“Sierra Club and also Dan Rametta, who is another plaintiff in the case, are fighting hard for the right to be able to continue to enjoy the Serenova Preserve not only for themselves in the future but for generations to come.”
Mehaffey thinks Pasco has spent about $13 million so far, but it could be much more in the future.