Judge halts construction on Suncoast Parkway Extension

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Construction on the Suncoast Parkway Extension has stopped, at least for now.

A federal judge has temporarily ordered the work to stop while environmental concerns are addressed.

A lawsuit leaves the future of the entire project in Citrus County in question.

At Oak Park Blvd., construction equipment has been turned off as a judge considers the impact of the highway on the environment.

At issue is what lies within the forest next to the roadway; a piece of Florida history that some say must be saved.

"It was a town, an actual town," said John Wade, of the Friends of ETNA Turpentine Camp. "They had housing, they had a store."

In what is now the western portion of the Withlacoochee State Forest, 200 people once lived.

"The people who worked here were prisoners," said Wade.

Other than a still, only a few remnants of the ETNA Turpentine Camp remain. The rest was carted away by the state or covered by a hundred years of growth.

"[There are] stays from the barrels where they processed the turpentine," said Wade.

The camp is both on the National Historic Register and in the path of where the state is building the Suncoast Parkway Extension, which would connect the Suncoast with State Road 44 in Lecanto.

"If we destroy our history, what do we have left?" asked Wade.

Amid claims the federal government ignored environmental rules in issuing work permits, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on June 14, blocking construction of the 13-mile, $134 million extension.  

The judge cited the camp and the forest, which is a home for endangered species.

"They could have easily gone 600 feet, a quarter of a mile that way and just gone around this thing," Wade insisted.

But others like Ken Rikard, whose backyard is a thousand feet from the proposed roadway, see a potential benefit in an area that is not served by a major highway.

"Some small companies would be more inclined to move out of a Tampa or St. Pete and move up here," said Rickard.

If a judge agrees with the plaintiffs, construction may have to wait until the federal government completes a lengthy environmental impact study.

"I believe we have an extremely good chance of prevailing," said Wade. "We honestly believe they did not follow their own rules and regulations."

There is a hearing scheduled for July 9, where the arguments will be heard on whether federal law was violated in issuing the work permits.

This four-year project could now take much longer.