Parkway doesn't hurt protected species, court rules
By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
A federal appeals court this week agreed with a ruling by a lower court that the Suncoast Parkway doesn't threaten federally protected species.
But the Sierra Club, which filed the original suit and the appeal, has vowed to continue fighting.
"Our major fight now is on the northern part of the Suncoast Parkway, going through Citrus County, the part of the road that has not yet been built," Frank Jackalone, senior regional representative for the Sierra Club, said Wednesday.
In addition, the club will oppose "feeder roads into the parkway, such as Ridge Road extension, that might fuel additional sprawl and excessive housing developments in Pasco, Citrus and Hernando," he said.
The parkway opened in February 2001 and stretches from Hillsborough County to the border of Hernando and Citrus counties. A second, 26-mile phase is being studied. It would stretch from the northern tip of the existing parkway to just north of Crystal River.
In 1999, the Sierra Club sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues dredge and fill permits for road construction, and the Florida Department of Transportation to stop the project. The club argued that the 42-mile toll road threatens three federally protected animals: the wood stork, the Eastern indigo snake and the Florida scrub jay.
Judge John H. Moore of the U.S. District Court in Jacksonville ruled in January 2000 that the Sierra Club failed to show the highway would harm the animals. He also ruled that the environmentalists had sued too late, after millions of dollars already had been spent on the parkway and the highway corridor had been cleared.
In January 2001, after a study found that the scrub jays might get hit by cars as they flew near the road, the Florida Department of Transportation said it would spend $100,000 to create terrain for the scrub jay on the Serenova preserve in Pasco.
The Sierra Club then appealed its case to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
In its appeal, the Sierra Club added that the Army Corps acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" way in failing to study the impact of the project on endangered and federally protected species.
On Tuesday, the appeals court affirmed the lower court's ruling and said that the Army Corps fully complied with all necessary procedures.
"We are satisfied that the corps took a "hard look' at the environmental consequences of the Suncoast Parkway, and that its determinations were not arbitrary and capricious," the court wrote in its decision.
Jackalone had not seen the ruling Wednesday and declined comment on it. He said his group will continue public education efforts and to "organize citizens who are opposed to the highway."
The club also is fighting the proposed Ridge Road Extension, an 8.6-mile highway that would connect the Suncoast Parkway with Moon Lake Road and U.S. 41. An interchange on the parkway has already been built for the extension, and Pasco County officials say they need the road as a hurricane evacuation route.
Officials from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers could not be reached for comment.
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