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    Metro Week in Review

    Toll road plan runs into a few hazards

    By Times staff writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 23, 2003

    INVERNESS -- Even before it can be built, the Suncoast Parkway is getting a bumpy ride as neighbors debate plowing over wetlands to build the toll road versus breaking up a neighborhood.

    Members of the Suncoast Parkway Advisory Group spent almost three hours last week raising concerns about the road's environmental effects and its possible encroachment on Sugarmill Woods and other developments.

    If the road does not go through Sugarmill, it would likely traverse the Annutteliga Hammock, a 30,000-acre swath along the Citrus-Hernando county line that is a habitat for black bears.

    Some say those options have essentially pitted homeowners against environmentalists, or anguished people with both interests in mind.

    Some environmental groups are already trying to stop the road's construction, saying it will open up an environmentally sensitive area to development. The Florida Turnpike Enterprise in undertaking a three-year study on whether to extend the road.

    Built as an alternative to U.S. 19 and Interstate 75, the 42-mile parkway links the outer regions of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties with Tampa International Airport and the West Shore business district of Hillsborough.

    A public hearing on the Citrus alignments is tentatively scheduled for the summer.

    City may ease its Sunday liquor laws

    ST. PETERSBURG -- On Sunday mornings in St. Petersburg, the stiffest drink you can order is a double latte at Starbucks, but that may soon change.

    The City Council last week said it is ready to explore allowing the sale of alcohol before 1 p.m. on Sundays, overturning a 1976 ordinance favored by the city's clergy.

    Current law forbids the sale of packaged beer and wine from 12:01 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays. Selling liquor, beer and wine at restaurants and bars is also prohibited until 1 p.m., and selling packaged hard liquor is banned on Sunday.

    Council member John Bryan proposed that alcohol sales be permitted as early as 8 a.m., although he said 11 a.m. may be more realistic.

    Easing the restrictions would be a boon for restaurants and hotels by allowing champagne and Bloody Marys at brunch before 1 p.m., Bryan said.

    "I think it's time for us to come into the 21st century and acknowledge that we are a resort community," he said.

    New commissioner revives debate over library room

    TARPON SPRINGS -- The library is the last place to limit free speech, a new Tarpon Springs commissioner says in an effort to revive debate over use of the library's meeting rooms.

    Controversy over the library's community room erupted last fall after the library board closed the room to the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, saying the group lacked the "political neutrality" required to use the room. Following that decision, the city adopted the restrictions on the community room's use, saying the room will be used primarily for library programs starting this fall.

    City Commissioner Peter Nehr said he has First Amendment concerns.

    "It doesn't matter what your religious beliefs are; it doesn't matter what your political beliefs are," Nehr said. "If you are a taxpayer you should be able to use the public rooms at the library."

    But library board chairman Bill Grantham said the community room was never intended as a public meeting place. Instead, he said, the room serves the public best when it is used exclusively for library programs such as children's events or computer literacy.

    Nehr plans to suggest changes to the new policy, scheduled to go into effect Sept. 30.

    State overturns local denial of charter school

    SPRING HILL -- The state overturned the Hernando County School Board and gave the green light to two middle school teachers to open Hernando County's first charter school in August.

    The School Board denied Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology, saying it didn't have an adequate budget. But a state board accepted the findings of its Charter School Appeal Commission, which two weeks ago determined the School Board failed to offer credible evidence for its action.

    The vote was unanimous -- the only unanimous vote to overturn a decision by a local school board.

    Gulf Coast Academy will be a specialty school for about 100 middle school students. Its program is designed to focus on hands-on activities and a curriculum that coordinates among subject areas.

    Charter schools have been permitted in Florida since 1996. They are public schools and often are operated under the auspices of county school boards, but they are not bound by many of the state's education laws.

    Despite having lost two months of planning to appeals, teachers Joe Gatti and Nevin Seifert still expect to open the school in August.

    Farm worker mission will widen its fund drive

    WIMAUMA -- For the first time in its 27 years serving farm worker families, the Beth-El Mission will hunt for donations throughout the bay area.

    The Presbyterian mission is embarking on an ambitious multicounty campaign to raise at least $500,000 in private donations over the next five years. The mission wants to expand its services and cover rising operational costs for the programs already offered.

    But such an expansion will take money, and someone well-connected to get it from throughout the area.

    Enter Alex Sink, the former Bank of America executive whose husband, Bill McBride, lost the 2002 gubernatorial race. Over the next year, Sink will travel from her Thonotosassa home to breakfasts across greater Tampa Bay, telling the story of the mission that touched her heart.

    The effort marks a sharp departure from the nonprofit mission's longstanding practice of relying on the Presbyterian church and grants to keep going. Beth-El leaders say the shaky economy has taken its toll on church finances nationwide.

    In short . . .

    APOLLO BEACH -- With plastic cups containing their new product, Tampa Bay Water officials on Monday toasted the long-delayed opening of a new $110-million desalination plant. The plant, the largest desalination plant in the nation when it reaches capacity, produces purified water to be blended with water from rivers and the underground aquifer, so Tampa Bay Water's 2-million customers likely will notice no difference in the flavor.

    OLDSMAR -- Oldsmar will join the ranks of public parks offering a water playground to beat the heat. The 1,500-square-foot water park will be built at Cypress Forest Park north of Tampa Road, which is scheduled to open in mid to late summer. Instead of swings and slides, the park will feature a giant daisy that shoots water, an open-mouthed frog that sprays a fine mist and three cannons for water gun fights.

    Coming up this week

    Tampa picks a new mayor Tuesday. Frank Sanchez faces an uphill battle against former Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio, according to recent polls, when the two face off in a runoff election.

    The Florida State Fair Authority, eager to have a new amphitheater ready to open by February of next year in time for the fair's 100th anniversary, is planning to vote on a final version of an agreement with media giant Clear Channel Entertainment on Monday. City and county leaders are hoping to put the brakes on the agreement, for fear a new venue would starve already cash-strapped arenas such as the St. Pete Times Forum.

    -- Compiled by Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne

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