Grassy Waters Preserve: The front line in the battle over State Road 7

Less than 15 miles from downtown West Palm Beach, an airboat glided through Grassy Waters Preserve, a 24-square-mile marsh on the northeastern edges of the Florida Everglades.

After passing alligators, wading birds and wild hogs, the boat slowed to a gentle drift along a stand of mature slash pine rising from the water on the preserve’s northwestern border. The boat’s pilot, Pat Painter, pointed to the water in front of the trees, at a row of wooden stakes topped with red ribbon stretching north.

“See those red flags?’’ Painter said. “That’s where the road will go.’’

Welcome to front line in the battle over the extension of State Road 7, a 2-mile stretch of concrete that could get the green light from the Federal Highway Administration as early as next month.

The project entails the final link of an extension connecting Northlake and Okeechobee boulevards, providing a much-needed route for the county’s growing central and western communities. Two lanes of SR 7 have already been extended from Okeechobee Road north to 60th Street North – a stretch the county eventually plans to widen to four lanes.

But it is the final 2-mile extension, from 60th Street North to Northlake, that has generated the most controversy because it would slip between the western edges of Grassy Waters Preserve and the east side of Ibis, a gated community of about 1,750 homes within the northwestern boundary of West Palm Beach.

Ibis residents are a force in city elections, and one Ibis resident, Jeri Muoio, is the city’s mayor. Residents object to the noise and traffic that a four-lane road would bring and are also concerned it would become a six-lane truck route.

But it’s a concern for the safety of the city’s water supply that is the big reason city officials cite for their opposition to the road. Grassy Waters captures rainwater for the water supply. Officials say the road could pose a hazard to the 120,000 customers in West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach who rely on the supply for their drinking water.

“We are the only municipality on surface water like this. No other municipality east of the Mississippi that I know uses a marsh,’’ said Painter, the environmental resources manager for the city’s Public Utilities Department.

Painter said Florida pioneer Henry Flagler bought land that includes Grassy Waters in 1894, realizing its benefits as a water supply to the budding development to the east. The West Palm Beach Water Supply Co., which was founded by Flagler, sold the marsh to the city in 1953.

If it’s built, the final SR 7 extension would cross over the M Canal, which feeds into Grassy Waters and continues taking water east to Lake Mangonia and Clear Lake in downtown West Palm Beach. Clear Lake, which straddles Okeechobee Boulevard, feeds into the city’s water treatment plant at Banyan Boulevard.

City officials say a busy road so close to the preserve could have disastrous effects on wildlife and water if, for example, a gasoline tanker overturned at the M Canal. They point out that SR 7, which extends as far south as Miami, already feels like a highway from Okeechobee Boulevard south to Boca Raton.

“No one minds the speed limit out there,’’ Painter said. “It turns a 90-degree turn at the M Canal after going 5 miles. Eventually something is going to happen.’’

But supporters of the extension say the city is exaggerating its concerns.

They argue the risk of a gasoline truck overturning near the water supply already exists along Okeechobee Boulevard between Interstate 95 and Australian Avenue – a much busier road less than a mile from the city’s water treatment plant.

West Palm Beach city leaders “are more worried about fear-mongering their residents about the water than they are about dealing with our traffic issues,’’ said Wellington Councilman Matt Willhite.

Road supporters also point out that Grassy Waters continued to thrive even after Northlake Boulevard was built in the late 1960s. The Grassy Waters ecosystem continues north across Northlake Boulevard into the Loxahatchee Slough.

“They want to sell a bill of goods that they are environmentalists,’’ said Michelle Damone, a supervisor for the Indian Trail Improvement District, which manages roads and canals in The Acreage. “Everybody knows that this is a personal issue and it’s hypocrisy. It’s personal issue because the mayor resides in Ibis.’’

West Palm Beach spokesman Elliot Cohen said the city’s concerns are shared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which prefers a route away from the preserve to protect wildlife.

Although the wildlife service does not favor the current proposed route, the agency still endorsed the route because it includes a wildlife mitigation plan.

“It’s not just the city who thinks putting it through there is a horrible idea,’’ Cohen said. “The road can be built a little farther west. It will still carry the same number of cars and it will alleviate any risk to the water supply and the wildlife.’’

The state Department of Transportation is expecting the Federal Highway Administration to approve the route within the next few weeks. But city lobbyists still are trying to persuade state and federal officials to kill the extension or at least move it farther west.

One option, according to the city, is for the SR 7 extension to follow 60th Street North west to 130th Avenue North, where the road could swing north and extend to Northlake Boulevard. That option would affect Acreage residents.

Painter said it’s imperative to avoid any more possible risks to Grassy Waters, which essentially is an island of wilderness surrounded by development.

“We are the northern tier of the Everglades,’’ Painter said, standing on the airboat’s bow. “We are the last place left like this.’’

Aside from SR 7 to the west and Northlake to the north, the preserve is bordered on the east by Jog Road and on the south by developments along Okeechobee Boulevard.

“We call it the asphalt choker, and it’s not a necklace,’’ Painter said with a laugh.

State officials say the preserve’s western border will be protected by nearly 200 feet of natural buffer between Grassy Waters and the eastern edge of the road.

“I can assure you that this road is not going to alter, by no means, Grassy Waters Preserve,’’ said DOT project manager Beatriz Caicedo-Maddison.

“The alligators and fish and birds will be able to continue surviving,’’ she said. “No pavement is going to go over them.’’

Just before he fired up the airboat engine, Painter said he wished state officials would consider long-term impacts before allowing a road so close to Grassy Waters Preserve.

“If the predictions come about, climate change is going to shut down a lot of the coastal well fields because of saltwater intrusion,” he said. “This is the best thing going. A lot people used to make fun of it. It’s an antiquated way to store water, but it’s invaluable.’’

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