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A Times Editorial

Delays in SR 54 project need to end -- ASAP

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2001

The resolution of a long-standing dispute between Adam Smith Enterprises and the Florida Department of Transportation removes one potential delay to construction of a wider State Road 54 from Seven Springs to Odessa and is a welcome step toward a better east-west road network in Pasco County.

But, it doesn't mean the bulldozers will move any sooner. DOT does not have title to other parcels needed along the route and must satisfy expected objections from the Southwest Florida Water Management District over flood plain management -- which could entail acquiring additional land -- before construction can begin in the 2002-03 fiscal year.

In light of that, Adam Smith, developers of Trinity Communities, believes it has been made a convenient scapegoat for potential delays. DOT acknowledges that should not be the case. It might be one of the few points of agreement between the two parties.

"It's not all Trinity's fault," County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand echoed Thursday after a brief discussion on the settlement at a Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting.

The disagreements date to the company's 1989 development order with Pasco County in which it said it would donate needed right of way for the widening of SR 54 if the state identified the land needed by June 1990. It was Trinity's carrot to the state to accelerate road construction. It did not happen, and the company maintained the offer expired in 1991 as outlined in the development order.

Adam Smith, instead, wanted compensation for the land, about 4 acres total, earmarked on a 1996 version of Trinity's master development plan as a commerce park. It asked for $4-million, about half of what it believed the land to be worth if it was sold as commercial property fronting a state highway. DOT offered $1.9-million but Wednesday accepted a counter-offer of $2.5-million. (The level of discord might be best illustrated by the fact the two sides don't even agree on when the counteroffer was made.)

The settlement came two weeks after DOT lawyer Richard Vickers told the Pasco County Commission the state would file a "slow taking" condemnation case against Adam Smith, allowing a court to decide the value without obligating the state to acquire it if the price was exorbitant.

That tactic followed a wise decision by the county not to expose itself to potential costly liability by finding Adam Smith in violation of its development order and instituting a building moratorium.

The parties involved would do well to examine their own performances and motivation. DOT is spending $2.5-million for land that should have been acquired gratis because of its own inattentiveness or inability to advance a much-needed road project. Adam Smith is to be commended for substantially reducing its asking price, but it still is accepting public money for land it had once intended as a donation.

Construction of a wider SR 54 is vital to moving traffic across Pasco County. The opening of the Suncoast Parkway will be accompanied by a burst of residential and commercial housing that will rely on the state road as its east-west route. And, westbound traffic already backs up significantly in the afternoon rush hour along SR 54 from the vicinity of Little Road and Old County Road 54.

Avoiding further construction delays on one of only two east-west routes across Pasco County is imperative.

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