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Gandy road plan looms over park residents

The state wants to put an overpass next to the Regency Cove mobile home park. Residents say it will ruin their way of life.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

SOUTH WESTSHORE -- Most every evening, Regency Cove homeowners pedal bikes or ride golf carts to the edge of Tampa Bay, where they gather to watch the sunset, accompanied by soothing music.

"It's paradise," says Eleanor Courchesne.

Regency Cove has been her home since 1988, when she and her husband, George, 77, traded the hustle and bustle of New York for a mobile home community off Gandy Boulevard, one popular with retirees.

In 1991, when the 45-acre park went up for sale, residents banded together and bought it, paying more than $10-million. No longer were they renters, vulnerable to the whims of land owners.

Two years ago, they watched in disgust as investors shut down Sunnydale Mobile Home Park near Britton Plaza, forcing old people out of their longtime community.

Still, Regency Cove residents breathed a sigh of relief, knowing it couldn't happen to them.

"We thought that no one could threaten our way of life," said Mary Lou Mittel, 73, a park resident for 13 years.

But there's a new kind of threat hanging over the park's 700 residents:

The state wants to build an overpass 17 feet above them, accompanied by the roar and rumble of thousands of cars.

The Florida Department of Transportation wants to connect the Gandy Bridge to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, giving Pinellas County residents an escape route against hurricanes while accommodating the growing needs of commuters.

By the year 2025, Gandy traffic is expected to more than double.

The state has presented two major options: a bypass south of Gandy Boulevard or an overpass along its northern edge. Either route would link north-south U.S. 19 in Pinellas County to Tampa's east-west expressway.

Property owners on the both sides of Gandy are concerned.

But Regency Cove feels the fear keenly.

"The whole place is going to go to hell in a hand basket," grumbles Susan Marz, 59, whose husband Val serves on the park's board of directors.

When City Times invited South Tampa readers to a community forum last month, nearly 50 Regency Cove residents appeared to complain about the Gandy connector. And last week, nearly 80 gathered, alerted that a Times reporter was visiting the park.

They fiercely guard their community's future, despite state assurances that a new road would not encroach on their land.

Under the state's proposal, Regency Cove's facilities would remain intact, including its swimming pool, hot tub and shuffleboard court.

"The impact will only be visual," says Gabor Farkasfalvy, project manager for the Department of Transportation.

But residents say the intrusion of an elevated highway will devour their way of life.

"Who will want to swim in a pool or play shuffleboard just a few hundred feet shy of speeding traffic?" asks Val Marz, 57.

Nearby businesses have more to lose.

More than 30 would be demolished to make room for the overpass. The existing five-lane road would serve local traffic.

The state's other alternative, the southern bypass, would displace 15 businesses, 13 to 16 single-family homes and three or four apartment buildings.

The DOT would compensate property owners and help to relocate businesses, Farkasfalvy says.

The agency plans to hold another public meeting in December, before issuing a recommendation.

"We will look at all the environmental, socioeconomic impacts, hazardous material sites and wetland issues before making a decision," Farkasfalvy says.

Construction is slated to begin in 2009.

The elevated overpass would cost more than $310-million while the bypass would cost about $277-million. Estimates include the cost of design, construction and right-of-way acquisition.

DOT planners have been working on the Gandy connector project for more than 10 years.

"We knew something was going to happen with the Gandy connector, but we never thought it would come to this," Mittel says.

The Marzes sold a waterfront home in North Tampa three years ago and bought at Regency Cove, hoping to stay put. Val Marz's 87-year-old mother, Viola, lives there, too.

Currently, there are six home sites for sale in the park. Last month, two buyers backed out of a deal because of the threat of the overpass, park manager Tom Meriwether said. Homes and sites cost from $22,000 to $143,000, depending on the location in the park.

"If we would have known the overpass was a possibility, we wouldn't have moved here," Susan Marz says.

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