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Battle brewing over toll road ramp

Crystal River City Council members debate whether an interchange

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


CRYSTAL RIVER -- When it comes to the Suncoast Parkway, there is one thing the City Council agrees on: The fiercely debated extension through Citrus County is inevitable.

"The fight is over," council member John Kendall declared during a meeting last week, to the chagrin of a handful of parkway opponents in the audience.

If that struggle is over -- the state insists a no-build option is still viable -- another has popped up: whether a parkway interchange should be built at County Road 495.

Florida Turnpike Enterprise, a division of the Department of Transportation, is planning the toll road, but says it will consider local opinion regarding access ramps.

"We'll take what they give us under advisement," said project manager Carl Gibilaro, adding that interchanges cannot be plotted until the parkway route is established.

Even though land the parkway would cross at CR 495 is several miles north of city limits, the council has an interest because traffic and residential and commercial growth would affect the city.

To some, the growth is just what the city needs to expand its tax base, either by annexation or water and sewer fees. Others fear development could be too rapid and that CR 495 would be saturated with cars.

Some residents might wonder why the question has even come up. In May 1996, as the County Commission was weighing in on the matter, prominent figures in Crystal River launched a lobbying effort supporting a CR 495 exit.

The exit was incorporated into plans for the parkway, though the exit was intended to be built at a later time.

But for various reasons, including the state purchase of environmentally sensitive land in the middle of the county, the project never went forward. A new study is now under way, and all previous agreements are up for review.

For an hour last Monday, the council weighed the pros and cons of the possible interchange. It was a spirited discussion that drew some heavy hitters, including landowners Ed Tolle and Ed Gerrits, who participated in the 1996 lobbying campaign.

The men might have left unhappy. Three of the five council members expressed reservation over a CR 495 interchange.

"My concern is what happens to all those people coming down 495," said council member Kitty Ebert. "Do you widen 495 to four lanes? There is no place to (widen) unless you wipe out all those businesses."

Susan Kirk, also a council member, reminded the audience that the underlying intent of the parkway is to quickly move people and goods through the state.

Because the road will end at Red Level, she said, it may not make sense to put an interchange a few miles away in Crystal River.

There is a good possibility of an interchange at State Road 44 in Lecanto because it is a midpoint between U.S. 98, the end of the existing parkway, and Red Level, Gibilaro said. He added that SR 44 is also ideal because it is part of the intrastate highway system.

Other possible exits, including CR 495, Cardinal Street and Grover Cleveland Boulevard, are less certain, Gibilaro said.

In any case, the state would have to consider whether the exit roads could handle the on and off traffic and if there would be enough vehicles to justify the added expense. Gibilaro did not know how much an interchange would cost.

The third council member against the CR 495 interchange is Robert Holmes. He asked the council to take a stand on the interchange so he could express that to the Suncoast Parkway Advisory Group, of which he is a member.

Noting the large, open plots of land in that area, Holmes said easy access to the parkway could accelerate development in ways that are detrimental to the city.

"If we don't have any say so on that stretch, it's just going to turn into another commercial road," Holmes said. "I'm just looking ahead for my kids or their kids."

Indeed, these council members say they want to ensure the city retains its small-town nature. "We want to be careful that doesn't change too much," Kirk said.

"You can't stop growth, but you can affect the characteristics of that and how it may change your community."

But others argue the city would miss a huge opportunity if the interchange does not come to fruition. In a passionate address to the council, Gerrits predicted a steady decline for the city's downtown region.

To illustrate his point, he references Ocala and its thriving downtown in the 1950s. But as the years wore on, the city began to expand and State Road 200 was built. Business gravitated to the "hard road" and downtown lost its luster.

"If you want to make a ghost town out of Crystal River, you go ahead and eliminate that 495" interchange, Gerrits said. "It will be insidious. One by one (businesses) will pass away."

Gerrits acknowledged that he stands to profit from the parkway. He owns a large amount of land in that area, both commercial and residential.

Tolle has also owned land in that area, though his family has sold some off. He, too, stresses the link between the interchange and Crystal River's economic health.

If parkway drivers must get off at SR 44 to visit Crystal River, they may decide to head east to Inverness or Leesburg, Tolle said. He reminded the council that much of the city's tax base is supported by business and they need to grow if the city is to support rising expenses.

Tolle has an unlikely ally in council member John Kendall, who offers the same reasoning. Kendall said CR 495 could be developed into a strong commercial corridor ripe for annexation, using water and sewer services as the carrot.

The corridor is part of the city's service area, meaning it has the right, by agreement with the county, to expand its water and sewer infrastructure.

"That's the only growth area," said council member Roger Proffer. Even if annexation does not happen, the city can still benefit, he said, through utility fees and eliminating septic tanks, which can hurt waterways.

City manager Susan Boyer said city staff and the Community Redevelopment Agency also favor an interchange. She wants to schedule a workshop with turnpike officials so the council can be better informed about the project.

The debate, she said, "boils down to how do people view the purpose of the Suncoast Parkway."

-- Alex Leary can be reached at 564-3623 or leary@sptimes.com .

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