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A Times Editorial

Watching the sideshow along route to toll road

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

Supporters of the Suncoast Parkway II project must be smiling these days. By a fluke, the opposition is being splintered by an intramural tempest over proposed routes, thereby diverting attention from the main question still to be answered: Is the toll road even necessary?

Suspicious minds might wonder whether this is a designed "divide-and-conquer" gambit by the state, one of the "devious plans" the governor promised to implement upon his re-election. It would stretch credulity, however, to suggest anyone could pull off a Machiavellian maneuver such as tricking Citrus citizens into class or community warfare.

And to the extent that the current flap has made people who haven't been paying much attention to the project sit up and take notice, it may actually work in the opponents' favor.

When the state recently identified a preferred corridor for the highway that would either slice through environmentally protected areas or through established subdivisions, it managed in a single stroke to ratchet up the defensiveness of both camps.

The environmental community, seeking to preserve the integrity of the Annutteliga Hammock and Lecanto Sandhills conservation lands, are incensed that the government-financed parkway could pave over significant parts of land bought for protection with state dollars.

But if the toll road is to avoid that open land, it will have to tear up neighborhoods in Sugarmill Woods, Crystal Oaks, Pine Ridge and possibly Meadowcrest and Crystal Glen. Residents in those communities, understandably, are outraged at that prospect.

This conflict has forced people to choose between ruining homes or nature. Neither option is very appealing.

It is a debate hardly worth having because the route has all but been determined. The same goes for the question of whether the road will even be built.

The state has signaled its intentions repeatedly, and in the most meaningful way possible, through dollars. The governor even put the project on the fast track several years ago by budgeting more than $45-million for right-of-way acquisition and preliminary engineering and by moving up the timetables by several years.

As for the route, it will go where it has been proposed all along -- tracking the Florida Power utility towers right of way from the Hernando County line to U.S. 19 at Red Level.

True, the state is in the midst of a study to examine all options, including not to build it at all. State officials have dutifully met with project opponents and listened to their appeals. The no-build option will be considered, and it will be rejected, just as it was in the 1990s after a similar study. There simply is too much pressure being exerted locally and in Tallahassee to see the road extended from Hernando County.

Why go through the motions? Because in recent years the state has acquired environmentally sensitive lands in the path of the parkway and it must consider the impacts on those lands. More importantly, the state is eligible to receive federal funds for the project. To qualify for the money, however, a study conforming with federal, not just state, standards was necessary.

When the final determination is made, the state will be able to say that it has examined all options and possible routes, listened to environmental concerns, met several times with the community at town meetings and carefully weighed all of the evidence.

Officials may also point out that the project has the unanimous support of the county commission and, according to two surveys, a majority of the county's residents.

In the meantime, people living in subdivisions that now appear to be in the bulldozers' path should relax. The parkway is not going to go through Sugarmill Woods any more than it is going to be built west of U.S. 19 or through the Withlacoochee State Forest, just two of the locations within the state's sprawling study area, which extends from east of County Road 491 to west of U.S. 19.

Just imagine the extraordinary expenditures of money, time and public good will if the state were to attempt to acquire property and demolish homes in several subdivisions or to drive a highway through a state forest.

To reinforce the point, the county this week sent a letter to the Florida Turnpike Enterprise raising concerns about "certain proposed alignments," specifically those that would impact Sugarmill Woods, Crystal Oaks and Pine Ridge.

The letter also reminded the state that the county long ago supported the purchase of the environmentally sensitive lands that are likely to be torn up by the road only with the understanding that such purchases would not interfere with the parkway plans.

The Florida Power utility line already runs through those areas and it will be argued that widening that gash by about 400 feet will cause the least amount of damage to an area that already is disrupted.

In the not-too-distant future, the parkway will be extended through Citrus County. When that happens, this current tempest will be a long-forgotten sideshow that did little more than highlight not only the attachments that people feel to their new homes and neighborhoods but some surprising resentments among the residents of the various subdivisions.

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