tampabay.com

Florida, you get uglier by the day

By BILL MAXWELL
Published September 23, 2007


Since moving from Alabama back to Florida 14 months ago, I have traveled to every part of the Sunshine State except to the Florida Keys and Key West, where I lived and worked during the late 1970s.

Most recently, I had the dubious pleasure of driving from Amelia Island to St. Petersburg - dubious because I mostly hated what I saw.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Because I had driven up to Amelia Island by way of Interstate 75 to Interstate 10, I decided when I returned to take U.S. Highway 17 from Yulee to Palatka, to State Highway 19, to State Highway 50 in Groveland, to I-75 to St. Petersburg.

I had not been on this stretch of Highway 17, also known as the Ocean Highway, from Yulee to Palatka since I was a teenager. Then, it was a pleasant trek through a world of hardwood trees, undisturbed river banks and family farms.

Now, this stretch is a virtual gateway to the sprawl that reaches from the Atlantic Ocean to regions west of Jacksonville International Airport. The highway itself is nothing more than a frontage road for developers. Doubtless, the slogan "build it and they will come" has been put into action with a vengeance.

At Palatka, I wanted to take Highway 19 so that I could see this section of the Ocala National Forest. When I lived in Crescent City as a child, we often camped and fished in the areas around Salt Springs, Juniper Springs, Alexander Springs and Paisley. Thankfully, the national forest is off limits to greedy developers, and it remains one of the gems of old Florida.

When I left Putnam County and entered Lake County, I saw the handiwork of developers everywhere. The towns of Eustis, Tavares, Yalaha and Howey-in-the-Hills still hold hints of their old charm, but their environs no longer are blanketed with rolling citrus groves. The groves have been replaced with subdivisions with look-alike houses, strip malls and Wal-Marts that have killed family stores and that stick-whittling ambience that made these places special.

As I came to the traffic light in Groveland, where State Highways 19 and 50 intersect, I was on familiar ground. As a child, I often came to Groveland with my grandfather, who was a truck farmer in nearby Mascotte. Downtown Groveland has not changed much, but it, too, has lost its miles and miles of citrus groves to houses and malls. Mascotte has not changed much, but I am certain that developers are ready to bring in the earthmovers and concrete.

Highway 50 to I-75 is on track to becoming more of the same, a vast wasteland of modernity. A few large nurseries are holding their own for now, and a handful of cattle people still maintain modest herds. But you can feel the heavy construction machinery rumbling in the background.

Five years? Eight years? How much time is left before this section of Highway 50 becomes a bumper-to-bumper strip for seasonal residents and vacationers to get to and from their fancy-named condos?

On I-75 heading south, I regretted that I had taken the back roads. I saw Florida's future, and I hated what I saw: Gangs of fools - with public approval - are backfilling our swamps, bulldozing our trees, butchering our mangroves, gouging our shorelines and paving over our grasslands all in the name of development and profit.

Every Florida resident should be concerned that we are losing our precious environment. To see the damage being done and what is left to be saved, all of us should get in our cars and drive some of the back roads across and up and down the state.