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West Palm Beach sues US agencies for approving State Road 7 extension


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West Palm Beach sues five federal agencies that approved extension of State Road 7 near Grassy Waters Preserve

UPDATED BELOW:

Having failed to stop the county and state plan to extend State Road 7 beside Grassy Waters Preserve, the city of West Palm Beach has sued five federal agencies for approving the “unnecessary and environmentally harmful roadway project in violation of multiple environmental laws.”

The city filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Sept. 12, against the Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, Federal Highway Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.

“Together these agencies funded and issued approvals for a roadway project that allows for the direct and indirect destruction of hundreds of acres of federally protected wetlands, the loss or degradation of habitat for multiple endangered species, the introduction of nutrient-laden stormwater into a low-nutrient wetland, and multiple other direct, indirect and cumulative impacts to the regional ecosystem of West Palm Beach,” the suit said.

South Florida Water Management District spokesman Randy Smith countered Tuesday.

“Federal and state agencies that have the environmental expertise to evaluate the city’s claims have consistently rejected the city’s position,” Smith said. “It is ironic that in the midst of one of the largest hurricane evacuations in Florida history, the city persists in its attempt to defeat an infrastructure project designed by Palm Beach County and the Florida Department of Transportation to ease congestion during emergency evacuations.

The project seeks to widen 4.4 miles of the two-lane road to four lanes and to create another 4.1 miles of road on the western border of Grassy Waters, a 23-square-mile, Everglades-related wetland that filters much of water supply for West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and South Palm Beach.

The Army Corps in July approved the 4.1-mile link from north of Okeechobee Boulevard to Northlake Boulevard and dismissed the city’s environmental concerns, saying that features of the project would help the preserve. “The project incorporates numerous protective design features to protect the Grassy Waters Preserve by providing improved runoff quality and emergency containment in the event of a spill,” according to a release from the agency’s Jacksonville office.

West Palm Beach has spent years and more than $2.3 million fighting the route, which abuts the 1,800-home Ibis Golf and Country Club development to the west.

The city’s new attack alleges the agencies violated provisions of the National Environmental Act, Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.

“The defendant agencies sidestepped their legal duties and unlawfully approved the project without fully evaluating environmental impacts or the viability of less harmful alternative alignments,” the suit said.

Nutrient-laden runoff from the road would degrade the wetland, it said. The runoff would be channeled into a ditch and then either percolate into the ground or flow into Ibis’ lakes, a stormwater management system that already doesn’t reduce nutrients enough, it said.

The issue is mired in West Palm Beach politics.

Just as the city filed suit, a full-color pamphlet with similar wording hit West Palm Beach residents’ mailboxes. “West Palm Beach’s water supply is at risk,” its lead headline said.

The mailer was attributed to City Voice Inc., whose officials include political operative and podcaster Bill Newgent, and Kim LeeBove, both of whom worked on Mayor Jeri Muoio’s last campaign. Newgent said he didn’t coordinate the pamphlet with the mayor, though he has featured her speaking about her opposition to the project, on his regular podcast.

“It’s a really important issue,” Newgent said of the State Road 7 proposed extension. “It’s not too late to stop this from occurring.”

LeeBove, who was Muoio’s campaign treasurer, now serves as the treasurer for Muoio ally Commissioner Keith James’ run for mayor in March 2019.

A follow-up mailing from City Voice this week targeted James’ potential opponent, Commissioner Shanon Materio.

Materio has long opposed the State Road 7 project. But as a West Palm representative on the Metropolitan Planning Organization, this summer she voted for an overall MPO plan that included the project. She said she did so because the regional organization’s plan included other “amazing, important” transportation projects that would benefit the city. Nonetheless, James seized on the vote to have her ousted from her MPO assignment for not supporting the city’s position against the road.



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