Editorial: End costly legal fight to stop SR 7 extension

We know it would difficult for West Palm Beach officials to stop their yearslong effort to prevent an extension of State Road 7 from being built along the edge of the Grassy Waters Preserve.

After all, Mayor Jeri Muoio has called the fight “critical” to protecting the city’s drinking water.

No surprise then that city officials are casting aside a Florida administrative law judge’s March 31 ruling in favor of the extension, and instead continuing a costly legal battle against building the crucial link between Okeechobee and Northlake boulevards.

But state and county traffic engineers have also called the SR 7 extension a “critical priority.” The proposed 4.1-mile piece of road is increasingly vital to relieving traffic on roads in the fast-growing central-western communities.

The only question is whether that need outweighs any “potential” risk to Grassy Waters. More and more, it seems the answer is “yes.” The latest coming from Administrative Law Judge Bram Canter, whose 51-page analysis sides against West Palm Beach’s environmental arguments and recommends that the South Florida Water Management District approve the road project.

“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,” Canter wrote. “In addition, there are reasonable protective measures to prevent a spill from entering the city’s public water supply.”

Next comes a ruling on the city’s objections from the SFWMD’s executive director with regard to permitting the project. And we expect that a more development-friendly water district will do just that by May 15. After that, the project would need only U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approval — and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency questions answered — to be under construction by summer, according to Sunday’s story by Post staffer Tony Doris.

Meanwhile, the city’s meter continues to run well past $2.1 million as reported by Doris.

For years, West Palm Beach has fought construction of the SR 7 extension. Opponents, including residents of the Ibis Golf & Country Club development, have argued everything from the preserve’s historic significance to the project’s threat to the endangered snail kite.

The primary concern has always been the risk to West Palm Beach’s water supply, however. In public forums and lawsuits, city officials have propagated the fear that a giant truck filled with toxic chemicals will crash and destroy the 23-square-mile Water Catchment Area west of the city.

Trucks also pass daily between Clear Lake and Lake Mangonia on Okeechobee Boulevard. Both reservoirs are West Palm Beach’s main water supplies.

And, as Doris reported last month, as evidence of the contamination risk posed by the road project, West Palm Beach’s lawyers stated in court filings that herbicide- and fertilizer-laden runoff from Ibis is already contaminating parts of Grassy Waters and causing unwanted vegetation to grow near the outfall.

Of course, no one can guarantee that an accident won’t happen on any stretch of road in Palm Beach County. But that shouldn’t be the goal here. Traffic and road engineers should do everything possible to mitigate the damage if any such accident were to occur.

That, unfortunately, has not been enough to assuage West Palm Beach officials who refuse to see past their own needs.

Yes, Grassy Waters is crucial to the city’s future growth as water needs will likely grow with a big push for in-fill development in the east. But completing the SR 7 extension shouldn’t hamper that growth.

And Palm Beach County engineers point to even bigger pressures out west as thousands of new residents move into such already approved developments as Westlake and Avenir over the next several years. Not to mention the traffic that now winds its way through Royal Palm Beach on a daily basis from Loxahatchee Groves and The Acreage.

West Palm Beach officials, in a statement issued last Friday, said, “All options on the table are being evaluated.”

Those options must include working with the Water Management District to finally put an end to this costly fight.

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