Permit for I-95 Interchange in Volusia County Gets Go-Ahead

TALLAHASSEE — After an administrative law judge recommended denying a permit for a new Interstate 95 interchange in Volusia County, the St. Johns River Water Management District on Tuesday moved forward with issuing the permit.

But opponents and officials from the district and the Florida Department of Transportation huddled during a district Governing Board meeting about potential changes to the project. While the discussion was held outside of the meeting, district board Chairman Rob Bradley expressed hope they will reach an agreement.

“It sounds like they made great progress today, and I would encourage them to finish the job,” Bradley, a former state senator, told the board.

The planned 74-acre project would create an interchange between Port Orange and New Smyrna Beach, south of Daytona Beach, at a road known as Pioneer Trail. The road now has an I-95 overpass.

The project has been considered for years, with the Department of Transportation submitting an application for an environmental resource permit to the district in February 2022. The district last year approved the permit but drew a challenge from the groups Bear Warriors United and the Sweetwater Coalition of Volusia County and two individuals.

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Administrative Law Judge E. Gary Early on Jan. 29 issued a 55-page recommended order that said the permit should be denied. Under administrative law, the recommendation went back to the district for final action.

District staff members took issue with parts of Early’s recommendation and drew up a proposed final order to approve the permit. The district Governing Board received presentations Tuesday but took no formal action — a move that effectively allowed the staff to issue a final order approving the permit before a Thursday deadline.

Early’s recommendation hinged on a canal in the project area that has been designated an “Outstanding Florida Water.” He wrote that the designation required the Department of Transportation to show the project is “clearly in the public interest” — a test he concluded the department did not meet.

“But for the public interest test, DOT established that the project meets all relevant ERP (environmental resource permit) criteria,” Early wrote. “If this case did not involve an OFW (Outstanding Florida Water), and if the standard for issuance was whether the project is not contrary to the public interest, the undersigned would have no hesitation in recommending issuance of the permit. However, this case does involve an OFW, and the standard is whether the project is clearly in the public interest.”

But the district’s proposed final order backing the permit concluded that the project “is clearly in the public interest.” It said Early improperly ruled that an “extra” environmental benefit needed to be shown to find the project was in the public interest.

“In aggregate, the district determines that the applicant (the Department of Transportation) clearly demonstrated compliance with all of the regulatory criteria, including the public interest factors addressed herein, and these factors are enough to render this project ‘clearly in’ the public interest,” the proposed final order said.

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Opponents could go to a state appeals court if they want to challenge the final order.

Several opponents, including officials and members of groups such as Sierra Club Florida, Bear Warriors United, Florida Defenders of the Environment and Audubon Florida, appeared at Tuesday’s meeting to call for denial of the permit. They raised issues such as impacts on wetlands and wildlife.

“According to law, the OFWs are supposed to have extra protection,” Chris Farrell, of Audubon Florida, said. “So it only makes sense that there should be a noticeable and significant difference between projects that just have to satisfy (the) not-against-the-public-interest standard that regular ERPs have and those that are clearly in the public interest.”

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FAU Gets Teeth Knocked Out With 70 Million Dollar Loss

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