FDOT Letter Rejects Environmental Challenge To SR 7

A letter from the Florida Department of Transportation setting aside environmental challenges to the completion of State Road 7 to Northlake Blvd. is seen by road proponents as the beginning of the end of a decades-long battle to get the road built.

The letter, from FDOT District 4 Secretary James A. Wolfe to West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio, states that environmental concerns for the endangered snail kite have been sufficiently mitigated by a coordinated effort to reduce the footprint of the SR 7 right of way.

The letter points out that during the March 2012 public hearing on the extension, the City of West Palm Beach submitted a letter written by the Tew Cardenas law firm stating that the environmental analysis conducted at the time was inadequate.

“Since the public hearing, the Florida Department of Transportation continued coordinating with the environmental agencies, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District,” the FDOT letter dated Nov. 20 stated. “A focus on the coordination has been related to addressing comments from the USFWS regarding potential impacts to the Everglade snail kite, an endangered medium-size raptor.”

Through the coordination effort, the proposed project footprint has been significantly reduced to minimize potential impacts, leaving a wider conservation area that will act as a buffer between the proposed roadway and Grassy Waters Preserve.

“As a result, the USFWS issued a Biological Opinion on Nov. 13 concluding that the construction and operation of the SR 7 project is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Everglade snail kite,” the letter continued. “The Biological Opinion further states that ‘the critical habitat has been designated for the Everglade snail kite; however, the SR 7 extension project is located outside of the designated critical habitat.’ Based on the findings of the Biological Opinion and the proposed mitigation plan, the department will make a recommendation for the Federal Highway Administration to approve a finding of no significant impact for this project.”

Indian Trail Improvement District Supervisor Michelle Damone, who has been a leading proponent of the extension, said she believes this is a major breakthrough for the completion of the road.

“We’re at the end of the road,” said Damone, who has led the advocacy for the project through the Western Communities Council, along with Royal Palm Beach Vice Mayor Dave Swift. “We have what we need to know to proceed to construction. I am anticipating, though, the City of West Palm Beach to file a lawsuit, but the Department of Transportation has, too, so they have been well prepared in advance.”

Damone said that she has personally supported the project for 17 years. “It was going on long before I arrived,” she said.

Proponents of the extension think that the real reason for the opposition is because Muoio lives in Ibis, which will have the extension running along the east side of the development, separating it from the preserve.

“All the funding is in place,” Damone said, explaining that the anticipated lawsuit by West Palm Beach will need to be resolved. “Construction will begin shortly after that.”

She credited Western Communities Council attorney Terry Lewis of Lewis, Longman & Walker with navigating through the objections. “He has done an excellent job with this,” Damone said. “He is in constant contact with the Federal Highway Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation.”

Damone said there is one snail kite nest in the preserve three or four miles east of the right of way.

“The snail kite is well taken care of,” she said. “It’s my understanding through Terry Lewis that the Federal Highway Administration feels the snail kite has been mitigated appropriately.”

Damone credited Swift and Royal Palm Beach Village Manager Ray Liggins, as well as Wellington Councilman Matt Willhite, for their support in keeping the SR 7 extension alive.

She said Swift and Liggins were helpful in working with Lewis, and Willhite sits on the board of the Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Organization, where he has gone head to head with West Palm Beach officials who have tried to have the SR 7 funding removed.

“During my tenure with the Indian Trail Improvement District, this is sincerely the most gratified I’ve ever felt serving in public office,” Damone said.