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Uphill battle for county on Oslo Road Boat Ramp

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of March 26, 2015)

Even though the County Commission earlier this month voted to let staff continue seeking a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for its snake-bit plan to expand the Oslo Road Boat Ramp, the chances of the permit actually coming through anytime in the near future seem as slender as a blade of the seagrass opponents say the project would destroy.

Recent correspondence from the Corps shows the agency continues to have serious doubts about the environmental impact of the dredge-and-fill scheme in an aquatic preserve, and the commission’s seemingly odd action – just months after it voted to put the ramp expansion on hold for at least three years – has reignited the same well-organized opposition that forced the earlier vote to table the project.

A Nov. 7 letter from the Corps to the County stated, “The Corps received over 300 objections letters/emails and a petition signed by over 3,026 individuals against the proposed project ... Based upon all the information supplied during the public comment period the Corps still has concerns regarding the impacts that this proposed project will have to aquatic resources including fisheries, manatees and submerged aquatic vegetation.

“If you do not plan to withdraw the project, the Corps will follow up with a more detailed request for additional information and subsequently reinitiate consultations with the Florida Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.”

What that last sentence means is that after 10 years of trying to push through a ramp expansion that lagoon scientists have decried from day one, the county is still at the starting line in the process of getting permission to move ahead.

The county did finally get St. Johns Water Management District approval, but it can’t turn a single shovel of dirt without the Corps okay.

“The Corps will do exactly what the letter says,” said Vero Beach ecologist and Pelican Island Audubon Society member David Cox, who helped lead opposition to the boat ramp expansion. “They are going to reinitiate consultation with state and federal agencies, and that is a process that could take years.

“The Corps is overwhelmed with permit applications for projects applicants are ready to build right now. It is hard for me to imagine they are going to streamline the [permitting] process for a project the County Commission says is not going to happen for three to five years.”

Meanwhile, political leaders, concerned scientists and environmental organizations are looking for ways to make the permitting process harder still.

District 3 Commissioner Tim Zorc, who voted against continuing to seek a permit, has floated the idea of having the area around the ramp listed as a critical habitat, a federal designation that would make it nearly impossible for the county to bulldoze mangroves and dredge seagrass beds.

“I spoke with Dr. Baker, Dr. Gilmore and Lange Sykes about that idea after the meeting [where the other four commissioners voted to seek the permit],” Zorc said. “I will do whatever I can to help. I won’t be able to get any staff time to assist with the effort.”

Gilmore, the leading expert on lagoon fish life and reproduction, believes if he can get agency scientists on record about the exceptional importance of the fish nurseries at Oslo, and share that commentary with project reviewers at the Corps, it will bring more scrutiny to the project and greatly lessen the chances of a permit being issued in the near term.

“The last seagrass surveys the county submitted in support of the project were taken at the very beginning of seagrass growing season,” says Cox. “When the Corps sees that, they know what is going on. They know when someone is looking to do a survey before the seagrass has a chance to grow.