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Pain precedes gain in streets of Dansville
By ERIC STIRGUS
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2000
LARGO -- A month before the cranes and bulldozers and construction workers in yellow hard hats commandeered the streets of Dansville, a Pinellas County inspector predicted the neighborhood soon would look like a war zone.
"Let me correct myself -- it's going to be worse," the inspector said at a December planning meeting. "It's going to look like World War III."
If war is hell, then the continuing construction in Dansville has left numerous residents and business owners feeling as if they are in the basement suite of Hades.
Some people are getting their vehicles stuck in the uneven, dirt-filled roads.
One asthmatic resident complained of dirt seeping into her air conditioner. Last weekend, her 2-year-old grandson found his way from her back yard onto a construction vehicle and then into a deep hole that is soon to become a retention pond.
Residents blame the county, wondering why construction crews cannot do their work without the mess. They also worry that emergency vehicles will not be able to navigate the lumpy roads if there is a fire or someone needs medical attention.
County officials say they understand such complaints and would love to see the work be done without bothering anyone. But that, they say, would be like a world without conflict.
"This is the painful process we have to go through to get new roads," county Community Development specialist Cheryl Reed said.
The county has asked for patience, sending letters to homeowners warning that the work will be messy. They said they have talked to emergency officials and believe access to the neighborhood is not a problem.
County officials say the worst is over and stress the project is ahead of schedule and under budget.
Thus far, work crews have extended 125th Street N from Wilcox Road to 126th Avenue N, adding sidewalks and driveways for homeowners. New water lines and sewer pipes have been replaced on Wilcox Road. Work has begun on two retention ponds. Utility lines are being buried on Wilcox Road. The entire project could be finished as soon as fall 2002.
Before 1992, Dansville residents lived in obscurity. An unincorporated speck of land south of Ulmerton Road before it curves onto Walsingham Road, Dansville was the home of orange groves when Dan Henry bought the 80 acres that make up the neighborhood. The purchase was made in the 1940s for $100, after Henry found one of the few whites who was then willing to sell land to a black man.
Henry divided the land and sold it to other black families, many of whom still live in the neighborhood. The neighborhood was named after him.
In September 1992, a tornado ripped apart about two dozen homes. But underneath the rubble, there was hope. The disaster awakened county officials to a neighborhood that lacked many of the basic amenities taken for granted in other communities. Most of the roads were paved with concrete, not smooth asphalt. There were no sidewalks and few street lights.
The county planned to change that. Some roads would be extended. The roads would be paved with asphalt. New water and sewer lines would be installed. Street lights would be added. Utility lines would be buried. And when the work is done, new homes would be built on one block in the neighborhood.
The project was delayed for seven years as county community development officials spent countless hours determining property lines and redoing deeds, trying to correct mistakes made over the years.
Now that county officials have settled on lines, some property owners dispute them. One such person is Solomon Davis.
In 1989, Davis opened the Hair Authority, a barber shop on Wilcox, the commercial strip in Dansville. Like many, he was excited about the improvements. Until 1996, that is, when he saw plans he believed would take 15 feet from the front of his shop, land he believes belongs to him.
Since then, Davis and the county have traded letters, each side certain its surveyor is correct and the other's is wrong.
Others also have questioned the county's property lines. Over the years, different surveyors have conveyed different property lines, leaving county officials with the task of telling homeowners land they thought was theirs belongs to someone else.
In Davis' case, Reed said: "We believe his full frontage is there, but not in the same location."
Meanwhile, construction crews have dug into the roadway, including much of the front of the Hair Authority. Davis had used that space in front of his business for customer parking and the loss of that land, he believes, will hurt his business.
"It is needed," Davis, 65, an art teacher at Countryside High School, said of the construction. "But it doesn't need to be in front of my door, taking away from my parking space."
Davis recently hired a lawyer. If the county cannot work out a way for him to have more parking space when construction is completed, Davis said, he may sue.
Down the road from Davis, hair salon owner Barbara Ann Robinson said she gets "hot" every time she thinks about the construction.
Looking at the uneven mounds of dirt along Wilcox and the massive construction vehicles, Robinson said customers are confused about how they get to her business, which she said has lost as much as $600 a month in sales.
The county has talked about constructing a building at the corner of Wilcox and 125th Street N. The idea is to sell space to merchants, like homeowners buying into a condominium. Some have shown interest. Robinson is suspicious.
"I distrust them because who's going to fix the roof when it leaks? Why deal with a building with six tenants when you have a building with one?" said Robinson, 45, who owns the Robbins Nest, referring to her own space.
There are some who feel the plans will eventually force out people who have lived in this neighborhood for generations. The county has made offers to some homeowners, hoping to replace aging homes with new, spacious residences for middle-income people.
With the road improvements and plans to build homes on the west side of 127th Street N, some see a future of higher property taxes that older residents on fixed incomes will not be able to afford.
"Some people think (the county) just wants the land, but I don't think so," said Willie J. Thomas Sr., a longtime resident and treasurer of the Dansville Neighborhood Development Corp., a community group. "One of the things they don't realize is we got state, federal and county money involved."
"It's a little sloppy, but it's expected," said Thomas, 62. "People are going to complain, but you are going to have disruptions in any situation like this. We're making good progress."
County officials say they are committed to keeping longtime residents in the neighborhood.
Glenn Claytor said he understands the suspicion and frustration.
Claytor, 64, grew up in Fairmount Heights, Md., an all-black community near the nation's capital that he describes as about the size of Dansville. He remembers his father asking Prince Georges County officials for road improvements and being turned down three times before county officials agreed to allow them.
Now, Claytor is helping build new homes in Dansville as executive director of the Dansville Neighborhood Development Corp. He came here last year from Chicago, where he worked for a group that helped low-income people buy homes.
He has also assumed the role of troubleshooter, listening to complaints from business owners and residents. On Saturday, a grand opening will be held for a home at 12603 Orange St. that will be the headquarters of the DNDC. Claytor believes the office will help him better oversee construction and give those who live and work in Dansville a place to go if they have questions or concerns.
"I feel progress is being made," he said. "I'm pleased with what we have been able to do. I wish we can do more. I wish we can do it faster. But I think it's going good."
- Information from Times files was used in this report.
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