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Judge's order fails to halt work on I-95 bridge

STORY BY MEG LAUGHLIN, (Week of October 18, 2012)
Photo: I-95 bridge work still in progress.

Construction of a controversial Interstate 95 bridge project appears to be moving full steam ahead in west Vero Beach despite a stop-work injunction issued by an Indian River County judge in late September in response to the Indian River Farms Water Control District’s request.

About a dozen workers in hard hats were at the scene Friday with heavy machinery on both sides of the so-called Lateral D Canal off state road 60 at 90th Avenue and 4th Street, where a 10-foot section of the northern canal bank looked like a freshly plowed field.

At issue in a lawsuit filed in July is the Water Control District’s contention that the Florida Department of Transportation is proceeding without a permit and endangering residents, farms and businesses near the canal because it has compromised the integrity of the canal’s banks, which could result in flooding.

The water control district says DOT did not shore up the canal banks with concrete and that threatens the integrity of the banks of the canal, which provides drainage and flood protection for over 9,000 acres of homes, citrus groves, businesses and farms.

DOT is widening I-95 in both directions for six miles in Indian River County from the southern county line to State Road 60. As part of the $54 million expansion project, DOT needs to sink huge concrete pilings into the canal banks. 

Furthermore, the water control district lawsuit claims that the state didn’t get the required permit to build on water control district land.

A permit from the Indian River Farms Water Control District isn’t necessary, argues DOT, and the canal banks won’t be “impacted in any way.”

But the water control district insists if construction continues in the direction it is headed, it will be “prohibitively expensive or even physically impossible to armor and protect the canal from unnecessary destruction and dangerous erosion from blockage and damming of the water flow” after the fact.

The water control district said in the lawsuit that because the banks around the pilings aren’t being reinforced with concrete, a bad storm or prolonged rain could cause the compromised banks to erode and crumble, creating a bottle neck.

Debris then could get caught in that bottle neck, creating a dam, which would mean water backup and flooding of a 90-year-old waterway that was expressly designed to keep water moving and prevent flooding.

On Monday morning, after a hard rain Sunday night, this prediction appeared to be in the early stages of coming true. While the water flow was not blocked, it was obviously slowed down by dirt build-up in the canal, from the failing bank and debris that was collecting.

DOT workers were hard at work putting sandbags on the northern bank of the canal and covering it with silt traps to hold back sediment cascading into the waterway.

If sediment continued to pour into the canal, catching debris and creating a dam, a citrus grove within 100 feet of the canal and homes and businesses in the area would be in immediate danger, as would large areas farther upstream, says the water control district’s lawsuit, filed by attorney Michael O’Haire, a barrier island resident.

Growers say the citrus trees will die if their roots are submerged in water for more than 24 hours.

Stop worrying, says a team of DOT attorneys in Ft. Lauderdale and Tallahassee. “The functionality of the canal will remain in place without interference.” Besides, say the DOT project managers, the construction “is actually improving the existing conditions .”

After a couple of months of back and forth, Indian River County Judge Cynthia Cox sided with the water control district and issued an injunction with “reasonable restrictions to protect the public.”

She ordered DOT to “do nothing to destabilize or weaken the canal.”

Cox also said that until she can look at all of the evidence on both sides of the dispute Nov. 7, DOT must “maintain and care for the canal and banks and shall ensure that the flow of water is not impaired or impeded.”

The compromised state of the bank, said DOT spokesman Barbara Kellerher on Friday, “likely happened before the lawsuit was filed.”

“While construction is continuing,” she said, my understanding is that all work was stopped in the area in question.”