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Parkway polarizes landowners in its path

The toll road is bile to some whose rural lands were snatched up for right of way. For others, including developers, it is bliss.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


If the Suncoast Parkway has generated divided opinions among most residents of the county -- people who will be driving on it or by it -- among a select group, the toll road is absolutely polarizing.

That group includes residents who have been most directly affected by the parkway: those who own -- or owned -- land in or near its path. Among them are people forced to sell their homes to make way for the road, retirees who fled from Tampa or St. Petersburg and then watched as an expressway was built across their rural parcels and investors who found plans for subdivisions either hindered or boosted by the road.

Some still hate the road and the Florida Department of Transportation. Some were pleasantly surprised, either by the way the parkway has turned out or by the state's civility.

"The whole system, in my opinion, is corrupt," said Karlene Nordgren, who is still fighting for more than the $23,000 the DOT offered her for her land -- 21/2 acres near Buczak Road, north of State Road 50, in Hernando County.

Nordgren said the state should pay replacement value for homes rather than, as the law requires, fair market value. She has been able to fight because she doesn't live on the land the state wants to buy. Homeowners have little power to negotiate because they need the money DOT offers them to buy a new house or rent property.

"The people who can't afford to fight it, they had to take what DOT gave them. The people who could fight it in court, they got more money," she said.

"There were lots of concerns," said Bill Hartt, who sold his house on Drew Street, north of Powell Road in Hernando, for $54,000 to make way for the parkway.

"You hear a lot of horror stories, that they will try to lowball you. But there was nothing like that," said Hartt, who added that one of the DOT representatives gave him good advice on how to handle the purchase of new property along with debts accumulated during a recent divorce.

"Everybody was very nice."

Before the acquisition of right of way is complete -- and, though the parkway opens today, the acquisition process is not finished -- it is expected to cost $135-million of the $507-million spent on the toll road.

The DOT Turnpike District bought 620 pieces of property to create the 42-mile path for the road between the Veterans Expressway in Hillsborough County and U.S. 98 in northern Hernando, said parkway spokeswoman Joanne Hurley; 271 of the parcels were in Hernando, as were 53 of the 152 homes that had to be vacated.

Ten property owners, including five in Hernando, still have not settled. Most of the contested parcels are small. The largest, owned by the Ayers family, has been valued by the state at $149,600, said George Gaskell, a DOT attorney.

Generally, Hurley said, the property owners were more like Hartt than Nordgren. In 66 percent of the cases, DOT was able to negotiate a price without having to resort to its power of eminent domain, which allows it to take private property after paying fair market value.

The people who live near but not on the right of way, of course, got nothing.

William Hoffstetter's home in the Springwood Estates subdivision, east of Spring Hill, is a few hundred feet from the parkway. Like many, he praised some aspects of the project. The DOT promised to build the roadbed lower than the original ground level and did so, Hoffstetter said. Along with the trees left standing in the right of way, he said, this will help block the traffic noise.

But, Hoffstetter said, he heard the construction, and he will likely hear passing vehicles. His air will become more polluted, and he expects the road to bring an unwelcome surge of new residents to Hernando County, some of whom undoubtedly will be criminals.

"That's what I see happening -- the crime rate increasing," said Hoffstetter, who grew up in St. Petersburg and moved into the house with his family seven years ago.

"This road is not for the people," he said. "It's for the businesses and the government. Somebody saw an opportunity and thought they could make some money."

Heidi Johnson, who lives with her family on Highfield Road, a few miles north of Hoffstetter, has watched her neighborhood become steadily more crowded since her parents bought the property 20 years ago.

The road will bring more crowding and may bring more noise, she said, but it will probably be no worse than the traffic she hears on nearby State Road 50. She praised DOT for leaving trees; she also welcomes the completion of the bike trail that runs parallel to the parkway.

"We don't have a problem with the road," she said.

Neither does Gloria Williams, who was once the road's most bitter enemy. Williams, the developer of a 238-acre development called Oakwood Acres on Powell Road, fought the DOT over its original placement of the parkway. She and landowners in her subdivision later filed several suits against the state.

She asked for more money for the lots in the right of way. She wanted damages for about 30 acres of her land that the parkway cut off from the rest of her subdivision. She wanted to be reimbursed for some of the money she and other lot owners spent to pave roads in her subdivision. She claimed that the state had bowed to political influence when it chose to cut through her property rather than through the gated Silverthorn golf course community, which is just to the east.

Now that she has reached a settlement with DOT, and especially since the state agreed to pay damages for the property severed from the main part of her development, she likes the idea of the road. She thinks it will help her sell her property, and she recently dressed up the subdivision's entrance to attract buyers.

"They were decent about it after we finally got everything settled," Williams said. "And I was pleasantly surprised at how nice they did the road. They did leave all the trees, and there is a bike trail on the other side. . . . It's going to increase our potential for selling because of the access to Tampa."

Octavio Blanco, a veterinarian, still has not settled on a price for his quarter-acre piece of property near State Road 54 in Pasco County. He still sees political influence in the selection of the parkway's route.

As proof, he brings up the case of Dr. Raymond Agia, a Tampa eye surgeon. The DOT paid Agia $8.95-million for 72 acres of his land north of Lutz-Lake Fern Road, as well as an additional 51 acres just east of the right of way.

The price was far higher than what was paid for similar nearby properties and higher than Agia's appraisal. That, Blanco said, was because Agia's lawyers were able to prove that DOT had decided on a route through the nearby Cheval subdivision in 1989 before any public hearings had been held.

Blanco said DOT blocked Agia's attempt in 1990 to have his property rezoned.

"This whole (route selection) process has been a mockery," Blanco said.

"Eminent domain comes with a responsibility to the citizens, but the Turnpike District doesn't take any responsibility. They are the most autonomous agency in Florida."

But, Hurley pointed out, Agia later received his rezoning on appeal. It was that rezoning, because it allowed Agia to claim damages far above the appraised price of his land, that accounted for the high settlement, she said.

Hurley is not surprised that Blanco has strong feelings about the parkway. Almost everybody with property in its path does.

"Remember," she said, "Dr. Blanco has a claim against DOT. He has one of the 10 remaining cases in litigation."

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