Getting nowhere fast on U.S. 19
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
The plans for what may be the most important road project in North Pinellas have been designed and redesigned.
The bid has been awarded.
The bulldozers are ready to go.
Just one man stands between commuters and an overpass to speed them up U.S. 19 and over Drew Street with no cumbersome stoplights.
That man is Frank Kunnen, a 70-year-old businessman who has built his 14-acre office complex into a family business. And he doesn't want it to change.
So Kunnen has waged a seven-year legal fight and has gained a reputation for single-handedly delaying the $81-million Drew Street overpass on U.S. 19, one of several planned to ease congestion and improve safety on Pinellas County's most notorious highway.
Kunnen's dispute with the Florida Department of Transportation over what it should pay for his land has delayed the project, which was originally planned to start in summer 2000.
Kunnen says he only wants what's fair. Critics say Kunnen's idea of "fair" is millions of dollars too much for a scrap of land.
His case, they say, is an example of how Florida's property laws are out of control, driving up the cost and dragging out the time it takes to improve state roads.
But Kunnen says he's the victim.
The DOT's plan will hurt his office complex by cutting off his access to U.S. 19, he says. In his view, the department has used heavy-handed legal tactics to deny him a fair solution.
Both sides have advocates. Three weeks ago, Pinellas County commissioners disagreed on how to handle the county's role in the issue. Most commissioners eventually sided with the DOT. But commission Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd said the DOT is dealing "a grave injustice" to Kunnen.
"I never wanted a dispute," Kunnen said. "I just want the same thing as everybody else."
Instead, he has a fight on his hands.
"So this is war," said his Clearwater lawyer, James A. Helinger Jr. "We'll just see who wins."
* * *
Officials at the Florida Department of Transportation describe the dispute more politely.
"We just don't agree," said Ken Hartmann, secretary for the DOT's District 7, which includes Pinellas.
Hartmann would not discuss specifics of Kunnen's case.
"The project is needed, and we believe moving forward with the project is the right thing to do," Hartmann said. "The issues we have can be remedied. We're ready to go before the appropriate court to do that."
After more than two years of delay, the DOT plans to start building the overpass in the fall and finish it in about three years.
But Kunnen is trying to stop the work.
State law says the DOT can't start a project until it has bought all the land it needs. Helinger has filed a motion saying the DOT is trying to take Kunnen's land illegally and thus can't start. A court hearing is scheduled for this week.
At first, the DOT planned to put a retention pond at the front of Kunnen's property, as well as building service roads to the center. But Kunnen and DOT officials couldn't agree on what the DOT would pay to compensate Kunnen for the loss of his land.
By February 2000, a DOT lawyer told a judge, only Kunnen's property remained a problem.
But Kunnen said last week that money isn't the main issue. He's more concerned with having a right turn onto a service road for U.S. 19, so travelers can leave his property and head north. He wouldn't name a price, saying only he wants "whatever the appraisers work out."
The DOT has paid $2-million to $4-million to some other large landowners, including six-figure legal fees. But in December 2000, the two sides were millions apart. Frustrated DOT officials gave up.
The DOT went back to the drawing board and will spend $4-million to change the project, moving the retention pond underneath the overpass.
The DOT still has to build service roads to and from Kunnen's shopping center, as well as to and from the Pinellas County maintenance yard, just north of Kunnen's land.
Ordinarily, building those roads would mean buying Kunnen's land.
But in 1982, Kunnen gave Pinellas County an easement over his land so that county vehicles could get to and from the maintenance yard.
DOT officials plan to use the easement to build the road over Kunnen's land. Since the easement is there, they say, they owe him nothing for the property itself. DOT lawyers expect, however, that Kunnen is entitled to recover some money for losing the use of his land.
Hartmann said that the DOT makes use of local government easements all the time.
"Typically everywhere the state highway crosses a side street, the side street is owned or maintained by a local government," he said.
But Helinger called it "the most maddening case I've dealt with in 30 years." He said the DOT is trampling Kunnen's property rights.
"They will use any tactic they can to get Frank Kunnen," he said. "Instead of getting this settled, they went and spent $4-million to redesign it just to teach him a lesson."
County commissioners split on this point last month after the DOT asked them to join in its court action. County lawyers backed the DOT, but three of the five commissioners present -- Todd, Calvin Harris and Susan Latvala -- sided with Kunnen.
A few hours later, Latvala switched her vote, saying otherwise the county could lose access to its maintenance yard.
Kunnen's 14-acre complex of stucco buildings, Clearwater 19 Commerce Center, is populated by dozens of small businesses, including printing services, a cabinetmaker and a mattress outlet. His children help run the place, and Kunnen, 70, says they're the reason he has stuck to his guns.
"How much longer will I last?"he asked as he sat in his office, DOT files spread on the table in front of him. "I don't want to say they don't have a right (to take the land.) But there's a process to it."
Brian Smith is county planning director and director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's transportation planning agency. Smith said the DOT's plan for Kunnen's land is reasonable. A right turn and a longer service road onto U.S. 19 aren't safe, he said, because the highway rises there to go over a railroad track.
"An extra minute or two just to make it safer for everybody ought to be worth it," he said.
The drawn-out conflict illustrates how much Florida's laws favor property owners, Smith said.
"I think in another state, the road would be already built and people would be using it," he said.
Smith said he has heard people joke that buying land costs so much that the DOT should be renamed the "Department of Real Estate."
But Helinger doesn't buy those criticisms. Florida land is expensive, and people deserve to be compensated when their land is taken away, he said.
"Why should somebody who has worked hard and paid for it have to give up for the public good?" he said. "I just get really annoyed at this, "We're paying too much."'
Of the $81-million in public money being spent on the Drew Street overpass, about $30-million will go to construction and $3.5-million to design. The biggest piece, $47-million, will go to buying land.
Those numbers are out of whack, said Seel, a leader of efforts to improve U.S. 19.
"I do believe in property rights, but there's some balance here," she said. "I don't think that's reasonable."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks