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Shari Anker: Battle to save 2 preserve state parks teaches statewide lessons

The story of the Port St. Lucie Crosstown Parkway Bridge tells how we lose Florida’s  natural beauty, resources, and ecosystems, even if they exist in our Preserve State Parks. It’s the story of a battle that must be fought if we are to save any of them.

In 1990, the city of Port St. Lucie surveyed federal, state, and regional natural resource/regulatory agencies about building a bridge through the North Fork of the St. Lucie River Aquatic Preserve — established in 1972— using two potential routes. All agencies commented that both routes crossed very environmentally sensitive lands and waters, affecting important wetlands. And of the two, they were firmly against what’s now known as Route 1C.

Undeterred, the Port St. Lucie city manager stated that since there was unanimous disapproval, the next step was to go “political.”

That was done. Then-state Sen. Ken Pruitt was enlisted to lobby for the cause. Engineering consultants were hired for millions of dollars to make the case that Route 1C was the “most beneficial.”

In 1996, the city began buying property along the Route 1C corridor, even though the National Environmental Policy Act dictates that an objective Alternatives Analysis and Environmental Impact Statement be completed prior to route selection. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection demanded, unsuccessfully, that an EIS be performed for the entire proposed Crosstown Parkway from Interstate 95 to Hutchinson Island. Project segmentation can substantially underestimate a project’s cumulative effects.

By 2006 the bridge project was being reviewed by the Florida Department of Transportation, which solicited comment from reviewing agencies such as the DEP. Many agencies “red-flagged” the proposed bridge crossing because of negative effects to parklands, wetlands, and wildlife.  No matter, the EIS declared that a road piercing the heart of important public lands was the very best possible route.

If the city chose any other route, the bridge would likely be built now and for tens of millions of fewer dollars. What’s holding it up is that pesky irritant called the law, at least as it’s understood by the Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County and the Indian Riverkeeper. We filed a federal lawsuit in 2014, arguing that the Federal Highway Administration and the DOT violated Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act when they approved Route 1C.

Section 4(f) states there shall be no taking of parkland for incompatible uses such as road infrastructure if any other route exists that would have less or no impact to parklands. Route 1C would take the most parkland, from the St. Lucie River Aquatic Preserve and from the Savannas Preserve State Park buffer preserve, which was established in 1994. However, Route 6A would take no parkland and fully comply with the law.

Likewise, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act dictates that every effort must be made to avoid the destruction of wetlands. Other less disruptive routes must be chosen. The Army Corps of Engineers states that Route 1C “is the MOST ecologically damaging” route, with the most destruction to the most acreage of the highest functioning and quality wetlands, thereby likely not in compliance with the CWA.

The South Florida Water Management District has requested a “formal finding” from the board of trustees as to whether a bridge through the aquatic preserve is “compatible with the purposes of Chapter 258, F.S. and Chapter 18-20, F.A.C.” Of the 10 types of activities permitted in such areas, none involve bridge construction.

Another sleight of hand at work here is the strategy to mitigate for the “worst-case scenario,” suggesting that was what was intended from the get-go. A big, expensive mitigation package was to make it OK to take preserves that have high ecological value. No provision in the law absolves the parties from choosing the least destructive route.

The 1971 Overton Park decision by the U.S. Supreme Court established that parkland must receive priority status in law, otherwise the economic and social factors at play in highway construction would always prevail, and no parkland could survive.

It’s up to us to make sure the laws designed to protect parklands count.

Shari Anker is president of Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County and lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla. For information on the valuable ecology of the St. Lucie County area, read the white paper available on the Alliance’s website. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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