Beltway could run into environmental barrier

On early maps, a four-county highway project appears to slice into the Cypress Creek Wellfield. No way, say environmentalists.

Published August 16, 2006

The proposed route of a four-county beltway appears to cut through sensitive environmental land in central Pasco County, a detail that could derail the project.

Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority officials have touted the 70-mile beltway — which would link Manatee, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties — as key to the area’s transportation network.

But in interviews this week, local environmentalists and state officials questioned the viability of the project, saying it could encroach on the Cypress Creek Wellfield,  which supplies drinking water to Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Local environmentalists vowed to block any incursion on the well field,  which is in the 6,000-acre Cypress Creek conservation easement.

“Guess whose body is going to be in the way,” said Jennifer Seney, executive director of Pascowildlife, an environmental group. “I’m going to wire myself with explosives to get in the way.”

Expressway Authority officials insist the beltway would skirt the well field, but acknowledged the ambiguity of the broad red lines on the maps they distributed. The red line on one of the authority’s two conceptual maps cuts through the easement, which hosts 13 operational wells.

“This is really preliminary, extremely preliminary,” said Beth Leytham, the authority’s spokeswoman. “One thing we thought about was going around sensitive land. But it’s so preliminary, we don’t have enough information to have a good discussion with you on it.”

An alternate route Leytham discussed Wednesday would slice through heavily residential parts of central Pasco, including thousands of homes in the Land O’Lakes, Wesley Chapel and Connerton areas.
Both routes threaten to kill the project before it gets out of the planning stages.

“They would have to take out so much of neighborhoods that it would be economically unfeasible,” Seney said.

“There’s just no way through.”

The proposal could take years to win approval and several more years to build.

If realized, the 70-mile beltway could be a smaller cousin to New Corridors, the state Transportation Department’s 150-mile, 1,000-foot-wide proposal that cuts through Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee and Hardee counties, among others.

Department officials suggested their project is ahead of the authority’s beltway in environmental sensitivity. The department considers Cypress Creek as a fatal flaw area, a piece of land the department would never touch, officials said.

“Our analysis (for New Corridors) purposefully stays away from things like that,” said Bob Clifford, the department’s planning manager, in reference to the Cypress Creek Wellfield. “I don’t believe they’ve done that much analysis on their proposal.”

The Expressway Authority has not yet discussed the beltway project with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, which has jurisdiction over Cypress Creek, said spokesman Michael Molligan.

“Any project cutting through has to have significant mitigation,” Molligan said. “Nothing is going to happen until they get one of our permits.”

Molligan said sensitive projects are shepherded through an “early transportation decision process,” a series of preapplication conferences. That has not happened for the beltway.

“It may not be time yet for (the early decision process),” Leytham said. “It’s just an idea. Let’s get a regional discussion on this going.”

Expressway Authority officials are headed to Pasco’s Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday to present their idea, Leytham said.

 The issue may widen when a multicounty citizens advisory committee meets in Pinellas Aug. 28.
Christie Zimmer, who chairs Pasco’s citizens advisory committee for metropolitan planning, said she intends to bring up the issue.

“They are not going to be able to impact the Cypress Creek Wellfield,” she said. “They are going to have to take it to the east. Why not take it closer to the U.S. 301 corridor?”

Environmental activist Clay Colson vowed to block any attempt to cut through the well field.

“I believe they will try to go through Cypress Creek, but over my dead body,” he said. “This whole thing is pie in the sky.”

Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.