As construction workers begin clearing the forest at the end of the original Suncoast Parkway to build a second toll road, historic preservation and environmental activists filed suit this week to stop it in its tracks.
The suit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court in Tampa, pits a group called the Friends of Etna Camp against the U.S. Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The suit challenges the permit the federal government granted for the construction of the controversial eight-lane highway known as Suncoast 2, which runs through Hernando and Citrus counties. Crews will bulldoze through the Etna Turpentine Camp — which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — as well as wipe out habitat for gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, both imperiled species.
Etna Camp, once a town of 200 people, sits on state-owned land in the Withlacoochee State Forest. Despite its location and its historic nature, the Florida Department of Transportation’s plans call for running the highway right through it.
The suit contends federal officials failed to do their jobs in reviewing the permit to allow construction to proceed, in part because they only reviewed the 1,300 acres covered by the Suncoast 2 portion of the project, which would stretch from where the Suncoast Parkway now ends at State Road 44 to U.S. 98.
DOT officials repeatedly have said Suncoast 2 is only a segment of their planned construction plan. Its toll revenues alone would not be enough to cover the cost of construction unless it is joined to another highway that hooks into Interstate 75. They are currently scouting a route for the highway they’re calling the "Coastal Connector."
The suit filed by the Etna group calls for revoking the permit and halting construction until the agencies can review the impacts caused by both highways being built.
The DOT’s Turnpike Enterprise Division, which builds and operates the state’s toll roads, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Neither did the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Etna hasn’t appeared on a map in decades, but it was buzzing with activity from the 1890s to the 1920s. Its 31-acre site lies about 4 miles east of Chassahowitzka, just off a dirt path that runs beneath electrical transmission line towers.
No buildings or boilers remain, but archaeologists surveying the site in recent years have found signs it once contained some 50 structures — workers’ shanties, supervisors’ homes, stables, barns, a cooper shop and two stills for boiling down pine sap the laborers harvested to make turpentine. Recently they discovered one of the stills was still there, according to Robert Roscow of the Friends of the Etna Camp.
In the 1800s, turpentine, sometimes known as "naval stores," was valuable for caulking wooden boats and a variety of other uses, including the original version of Vicks VapoRub.
Although DOT officials discussed bending the highway around Etna, in the end they chose to go through it.
"There are much better preserved turpentine campsites around the state," a DOT spokeswoman said in 2016.
While public hearings on the Suncoast 2 have drawn hundreds of opponents, its construction was officially endorsed by local government. Supporters of the Suncoast extension believe it would act as a bypass road and could spur development in an area that is not heavily populated. No money has been allocated for building the Coastal Connector.
When the first Suncoast Parkway opened in 2001, its supporters were sure it would spark a massive building boom. They expected new residents and businesses galore would soon fill the 42-mile toll road with cars and trucks, and the state’s coffers with money. But the boom fizzled, and the highway’s rosy toll projections have never been fulfilled.
The DOT put Suncoast 2 on a back burner in 2008 because the state’s economic meltdown had seriously hurt Suncoast 1’s toll revenue. The project would still be in mothballs today, except for Gov. Rick Scott. In 2015, without any explanation, the governor injected $150 million of taxpayer money into the project, reviving it.
Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.