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Sally Swartz: Port St. Lucie tries to sneak a bridge across public wetlands

In a holiday twist, the fate of the controversial bridge across the Halpatiokee Trails section of Savannas Preserve State Park now lies with a federal agency that once said the route is the “most ecologically damaging” Port St. Lucie could have chosen.

The city, apparently hoping no one would notice over the holidays, asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit to fill wetlands in Halpatiokee, a first step toward building the bridge. Bridge opponents crushed the city’s earlier attempt to start work under a permit from the South Florida Water Management District.

“The city is hell bent on destroying this area before any legal determination has been made,” said Shari Anker, leader of the Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County. “Port St. Lucie is getting ready to move more gopher tortoises and bring in bulldozers.”

Robert N. Hartsell, Conservation Alliance lawyer, said for the Army Corps to OK the permit, it would have to demonstrate why it changed directions “and have a compelling reason” for letting the city destroy wetlands.

Hartsell filed a federal lawsuit for the Conservation Alliance and the Indian Riverkeeper in April. The suit claims the Federal Highway Administration broke federal laws by not choosing the least damaging route for the bridge, away from the state preserve.

Florida used taxpayer money to buy and preserve the Halpatiokee Trails land, located just north of Village Green Drive on the west side of U.S. 1. Allowing preservation land to be used for the bridge would set a terrible precedent that could affect all other conservation lands in Florida.

The land has a trail that leads to Evans Creek, winding through pine flatwoods, Florida scrub and wetlands. Bobcats, gopher tortoises, bald eagles, ospreys and river otters live here. Giant leather fern, air plants and wild orchids grow in the woods.

A few steps away from U.S.1, the Halpatiokee Trails area is cool and quiet, a peaceful oasis in a crowded area with a lot of noisy traffic.

Wetlands on the property serve as an “aquatic buffer” for water flowing to the North Fork of the St. Lucie River and the Indian River lagoon. The Corps has called the wetlands “high functioning” and “high quality.”

Port St. Lucie for years has pushed for the bridge to cross the preserve area. It is the last link in the Crosstown Parkway between Interstate 95 and U.S. 1. While other, more northern routes have little environmental impact, the city wants this one because it is near City Center.

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Port St. Lucie never had a real downtown, so the city designed and built the City Center, with space for classes, conferences and recreation, just before the recession hit. The private part of the private-public partnership failed, and a Chinese buyer that was supposed to build business space, apartments, restaurants and other downtown components, has been elusive.

Conservation Alliance members speak at public gatherings, write letters and recently staged a protest at Halpatiokee to highlight its attributes and its plight. “This is the only remaining green area in Port St. Lucie with any ecological import,” Anker said.

The city has been determined in its push to put the bridge through the preserve. So this latest sneaky tactic of trying to win approval for a permit over the holidays, when many residents are too busy or distracted to notice or comment, is no surprise.

Here’s hoping the Army Corps checks its records and remembers that it consistently has opposed this route because it would do the most environmental damage. Blocking Port St. Lucie’s attempt to destroy Halpatiokee before the courts have a say would be a late holiday surprise to delight Conservation Alliance members.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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