Officials urged to plug parkway route

A judge's ruling Monday means work on the Suncoast Parkway can start again immediately.

A federal judge magistrate late Monday rescinded the temporary restraining order that had halted work on the Suncoast Parkway nearly a month ago.

The judge also denied a preliminary injunction for Friends of the Etna Turpentine Camp Inc., saying it had not shown that it was likely to win the lawsuit.

The rulings mean work on the Suncoast Parkway, which stopped June 14, may begin again immediately.

There was no word on whether Friends of the Etna will appeal. Etna attorneys said they would have a statement on Tuesday.

The Etna group sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Department of the Interior, claiming the agencies conducted only a cursory environmental review before providing permits to the Florida Department of Transportation in July 2017 to build the 13-mile Suncoast 2 parkway from U.S. 98 to State Road 44 in Lecanto.

During a hearing Monday morning at the Golden Collumn Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Ocala, attorneys for Etna and its founder, Robert “Bobby” Roscow, argued that the federal plan did not offer protection strategies for the eastern indigo snake, gopher tortoise or Etna Turpentine Camp, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In his written ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Philip Lammens noted that the Etna camp is in the direct path of the parkway and that that is the group’s true issue, not the indigo snake or gopher tortoise.

“To preserve itself, Etna attempts to speak for the snakes,” he wrote. “The snake, and the tortoise, however, have had a voice for a while, as has Etna, for that matter. The process, according to the Defendants, dates back to the early 1990s, before Etna was listed.”

During the hearing, Etna attorney Heidi Mehaffey said the environmental review did not consider likely parkway expansion. Mehaffey mentioned two specific issues:

- The Southwest Florida Water Management District permitted drainage for an eight-lane parkway, even though it only permitted for construction purposes the four-lane roadway being built. Mehaffey said the study should have included the extra right of way.

“The environmental assessment does not have any mention of expanding to eight lanes,” she said.

- The Coastal Connector, which was presented as an Interstate 75 reliever and would have connected the Suncoast Parkway at S.R. 44 to U.S. 301 or I-75 near Ocala.

However, Devene Walker, an attorney with the Justice Department representing USFWS, pointed out the agency could not have provided an accurate study of the Coastal Connector because the state has not yet picked a route.

The Coastal Connector project is on hold after an outcry from residents and local governments in Citrus and Marion counties. Mehaffey said she expects it to restart and when it does, it will extend from the Suncoast Parkway.

Attorney Fred Aschauer, representing the FDOT, said FDOT stood to lose $1.2 million a month had the restraining order or injunction been in place.

Aschauer called the Coastal Connector a “pie in the sky” project that has no traction.

“It’s a concept and at this point, it’s a concept that’s been put on hold,” Aschauer said.

Judge Lammens agreed, saying Etna provided no proof the Coastal Connector will ever be built.

“Accordingly, Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a substantial likelihood of success in showing that construction of the Coastal Connector is reasonably foreseeable such that it should have been included in the FWS’s analysis,” he wrote.

He reached a similar conclusion in Etna’s argument that the water management district’s drainage permit for an eight-lane roadway meant the environmental review should have included that additional right of way. Lammens said the drainage permit isn’t enough to expand the roadway; another construction permit would be needed.

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.

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