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County pushes for boat ramp work despite opposition

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of June 21, 2012)

Indian River County’s strange obsession with renovating the Oslo Road Boat Ramp facility reared its head last Friday when Roadway Production Manager Michael Nixon appeared before the board of the Florida Inland Navigation District in Cocoa Beach to request a matching grant to help pay for the alterations.

His action appears strange in part because the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has firmly denied the county’s request for a permit to do the work, and the permit issued by St. John’s Water Management District is in administrative limbo after environmentalists challenged it.

The county needs both permits to proceed.

Nixon did not sugarcoat the difficulties he faces to push the project through, even as he asked for money to do the work. “This project has been a very big challenge as far as permitting goes,” he told the FIND Board of Commissioners in what could be regarded as an understatement.

Over the past several years, the county’s plans for the site have been repeatedly rejected by a laundry list of state and federal regulatory agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The county has encountered passionate opposition from The Sierra Club, Save the Manatee Club, the Marine Resources Council and half a dozen other respected scientific and environmental organizations.

The groups and government agencies say the proposed work will endanger or damage manatees, fish populations, sea grass and lagoon water quality. They point out the ramp is located within the boundaries of a state aquatic preserve in a high-use manatee area on property the county bought through the Florida Communities Trust Program primarily for conservation.

Dr. Grant Gilmore, considered the foremost expert on fish in the lagoon, wrote in a 2011 OP-ED he opposes expanding the boat ramp facility because the area in front of it is an exceptionally abundant nursery for red drum, snook and tarpon as well as being “the largest sea trout spawning aggregation between Cape Canaveral and Jupiter Inlet.”

Nixon told FIND commissioners the Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit for two reasons.

“The first part of the denial was based off of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife determination that the plan would cause a manatee kill – which we don’t agree with.” He said the other part of the denial was based on the presence of a “waterway of national significance south of the project area and “pristine mangroves to the north.”

“They don’t want us to encroach into either of those areas and we basically can’t fit what we want to do in between them,” Nixon said. “We are kind of at a standstill there.”

The county is appealing the corps denial and Nixon said he hopes for a decision within the next 60 days.

The project has been under discussion since 2003 when the county hired G.K. Environmental to do an environmental site assessment of the property.

In 2008, the county applied for a permit to fill in three acres of mangrove swamp to create a parking lot for 40 cars, build a 120-foot fishing dock and dredge a channel that connects the existing boat ramp to the intercostal waterway.

Given the delays and degree of effective opposition to the project, it seems fair to say the county miscalculated in its original permit application. The scope and design of the 2008 proposal put environmentalists and agencies on guard.

"It was a huge overreach in terms of what is appropriate for that site," says Pat Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club.

As now planned, the project includes paving Oslo Road, adding 12 truck and boat trailer parking places and 10 parking places for cars, extending the docks and dredging part of the channel, work which Nixon says amounts to “maintaining what we already have.”

Even though the project has been scaled back to have less ecological impact, many people remain suspicious of its environmental effects and of the motivations behind it. The county contributes to those doubts by sometimes contradictory statements.

County officials say they want to improve the facility mainly so citizens can use it to get out on the river and enjoy the pleasures of fishing and experience the county’s beautiful natural environment. At the same time, they admit it is being used now. The road leading to the boat ramp is lined with trucks and empty boat trailers on weekends.

According to Nixon, a main purpose for the proposed upgrades is to make the facility safer, but he also says he is not aware of any accidents or injuries at the ramp.

Commissioners and other supporters say the project is important enough to the county’s well-being to justify the half million dollars already spent and the $900.000 more in county and FIND money they plan to spend, but Nixon says it won’t really change anything.

So why keep battling uphill to get the project done?

Opponents allege undue political influence by businessmen who hope to benefit from increased boat traffic at the ramp.

Nixon says it is “because the commissioners want it done” and because “we have hundreds of letters and petitions from boaters and fishermen who support for the project.”

As previously reported in this paper, many of the letters and petitions Nixon mentions appear to be fraudulent.

“This does not happen very often,” said Victor Castro, division director of Regulatory Information Management at St John’s, when the fraud came to light last fall. “Our legal department is investigating the forged letters.”