Many moons ago, a plan was developed to extend State Road 7 to Northlake Blvd. In fact, signage near the Ibis Golf & Country Club — located in the general vicinity of the proposed extension — has noted the plan for years.
Decades later, that much-needed plan remains unfinished. And at this point, it’s safe to say that, for all the crocodile tears West Palm Beach city officials have shed over alleged environmental impacts the project would create in the Grassy Waters Preserve, far worse environmental impacts will take place if the roadway is not completed and, in fact, have taken place in the preserve while it has been under the city’s jurisdiction.
The four-mile extension is considered by residents of the western communities to be essential — not only as an evacuation route during hurricane season, but to create a vital infrastructure link that has been missing for decades. The primary objection to construction has come from the City of West Palm Beach, which alleges the project could cause environmental problems and endanger the city’s water supply. City officials have pushed the scenario that large trucks filled with toxic chemicals could crash and destroy its 23-square-mile water catchment area. Critics also argue that the project threatens to damage critical habitat for several endangered species, including the Everglades snail kite.
But supporters of the roadway — which includes nearly all governmental officials from the municipalities of Royal Palm Beach, Wellington and Loxahatchee Groves, along with the Indian Trail Improvement District in The Acreage, two local chambers of commerce and most nearby residents — note correctly that West Palm Beach allowed thousands of homes and several roads to be built on all other sides of the Grassy Waters Preserve when it suited the city’s purposes. Further, West Palm Beach’s developments along the north side of Okeechobee Blvd. only exist because of an agreement to build the SR 7 extension to Northlake. Furthermore, to protect the water supply and the environment, the Florida Department of Transportation plans a litany of extra precautions to be built into the roadway.
In late March, Florida Administrative Law Judge Bram Canter recommended a ruling against the city. In a 51-page analysis, he noted, “The project would not adversely impact public health, safety and welfare associated with the city’s public water supply in the water catchment area because the project would have no effect on the city’s water supply operations. In addition, there are reasonable protective measures to prevent a spill from entering the city’s public water supply.”
Canter’s ruling backs a position taken by the Federal Highway Administration two years ago. In February 2015, the FHA determined the stretch of road will have no significant impacts on the environment, including Grassy Waters. West Palm Beach has already sunk more than $2 million into opposing the extension, and has been shot down every step along the way. We know it can be difficult to wave the white flag, but it is time to move on. There are bigger, more important political fights on which to concentrate these days. The South Florida Water Management District should issue the necessary permits to make sure that this crucial roadway becomes reality.