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Citrus at a crossroads as parkway approaches

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


It's here. Almost.

Today marks a key moment in the evolution of the Nature Coast: The first vehicles begin rolling on the latest leg of the Suncoast Parkway.

No matter where you fall on the issue, whether you see this highway as an economic boon or an environmental time bomb, it must now be acknowledged that the parkway is a reality.

It begins in Tampa and ends, for now, at State Road 50 in Hernando County. By the summer, the next portion is expected to be finished and the limited access highway will stop at Citrus County's southern doorstep.

Over the next few years, we'll begin to see signs of whether either camp's predictions are true. Either way, it's here.

In many ways, this controversial project symbolizes the great debate of growing areas like central Florida. As more people flow into the state, the need for housing and roads to accommodate this growing population becomes acute.

Obviously, you can't build a house or pave a road without degrading nature which, the environmentalists correctly note, was here first.

It's a balancing act that has been tried across Florida, usually with dismal results. Either too many people crowd an area and overwhelm the infrastructure (see: Florida, East Coast; Florida, Keys; Florida, West Coast), or roads are built into what once was wilderness and the developers all but run over themselves with bulldozers in a mad scramble to build (see: Florida, Magic Kingdom).

Since it appears Florida will continue to have plenty of sun, if not plenty of fresh water, the state can expect to be a magnet for newcomers, especially those tired of freezing for six months out of the year. And since the law frowns on building walls at the borders to keep out such transplanted families, we can expect more people to encroach on the wilderness with each passing year.

That means more highways like the Suncoast Parkway will roll across the landscape.

In Citrus County, we're at a crossroads. Our population is growing, so the need for infrastructure is a reality. Yet, we pride ourselves on being one of the most beautiful places in the state, if not the country. You can't have it both ways, at least not forever.

Citrus County is at a unique point in its history, a moment when we can take control of our own destiny and say, yes, we know we will grow but this is how we will grow. We have the advantage of hindsight, being able to see how the rest of the state has mishandled the ball and are now suffering the consequences.

We don't have to become victims, lamenting years from now decisions made by powerful people driven by economic interests only. Preservationists, too, have voices and they will be heard.

With or without the parkway, our highways are being overtaxed as we speak. Almost every week, plans for yet another shopping center or superstore or huge apartment complex are floated. And they'll keep on coming.

Diligence is crucial. Every proposed building or roadway must be examined closely by local boards. Every amendment to the comprehensive plan, supposedly our bulwark against urban sprawl, must be held to the highest scrutiny. Often, it's not the one, huge project that causes the most damage but the host of little ones that slide under the radar. They add up.

A strong contingent of citizens determined to preserve our environment are lined up to block the Suncoast Parkway from extending into Citrus County, and many of these same people have made their voices heard on proposals to develop U.S. 19 from border to border and to protect our precious groundwater.

Too often, they are viewed as cranks by business leaders who should, instead, thank them for working so hard to keep Citrus beautiful. After all, that is what makes our county so attractive in the first place.

They may not be right all the time, but their hearts are in the right place. Years from now, we'll be glad they spoke up.

With the opening of the parkway, the ante has been raised. History will look upon the decisions we make now and judge us on how well we served as stewards over what God and Mother Nature have provided.

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