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Local road closures open fierce arguments

Those who favor the closings accuse opponents of underhanded tactics. They counter that the city had its mind made up.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


ST. PETE BEACH -- The City Commission will vote Tuesday on whether to close off more than a dozen residential streets near their intersection with Blind Pass Road -- a choice that would allow a traffic light at a crucial corner but change the character of a neighborhood.

Even John Phillips, who lives in that neighborhood and represents residents in this northern part of the city, is not sure how he will vote. He has made no secret of his personal preference -- closing off the streets -- but feels compelled to pay attention to what the majority of his neighbors want.

"The two parts of my job, to lead or represent, are at odds right now," Phillips said.

The city sent a survey to each household in the northern section of St. Pete Beach, and Phillips, among others, has been surprised by the response from the community. As of Wednesday, 166 respondents have said they favor the road closures; 432 say they are against them.

The issue has pit neighbor against neighbor, with those favoring the road closures accusing the others of disseminating bad information and the road closure opponents insisting commissioners had made up their minds before asking residents what they think.

There are other pressures on commissioners. Proponents of the road closures say the survey results do not represent the opinions of the neighborhood but illustrate how organized the opponents are.

The state Department of Transportation plans to begin widening Blind Pass Road into five lanes in July 2001. The widening will stop at 75th Avenue, but city officials pleaded for a stoplight at the intersection of 84th Avenue, home of two churches and two schools.

At first the DOT refused the light, but after the city hired its own engineer to find a way to install a light at the busy intersection, DOT agreed to allow the light if the city would close access to several residential streets from Blind Pass Road.

Carol Giovannoni, a single mother of two teenagers who supports the road closures and the stoplight at 84th Avenue and Blind Pass, said folks on her side of the issue are suspicious of how many survey cards have been returned opposing the street closures.

"Survey cards are turning up everywhere," Giovannoni said. "They're being turned in in bulk by this opposing group. There's no numbers, signatures, no addresses, so it's really hard to keep track of who has sent them in."

Giovannoni said the commission should throw out the survey results altogether. She said she believes the people who favor road closures were not as active as the others because they were confident the City Commission already favored the plan.

"When this initially was proposed, when the (Department of Transportation) announced that they were going to do the five-lane road, it was disturbing, but the city put together this plan, and we were all for it. We signed petitions and rallied behind them," Giovannoni said. "Then we just went back to our normal lives, back to work and back to shopping and back to kids, and then all of a sudden we find out there's this big group opposing it."

On the other side are people like Gil Migliano, 77, who has lived since 1955 on 85th Avenue, one of the streets that would be closed to Blind Pass Road. Migliano and his group believe they have been fighting an uphill battle to keep the neighborhood streets as they are because commissioners previously favored the closures.

Commissioners have maintained that they want to listen to the community.

"They're all for closure," Migliano said. "They've been set on it since day one, I think. We're opposed because of the inconvenience it's going to cause us older, established residents."

Phillips admits he is not pleased with how the effort to get more people inspired to fight the road closures has progressed. Incorrect information has been distributed, and several people have complained to him that road closure opponents who have asked them to sign petitions have been rude.

Marsha Jordan, the principal of Gulf Beaches Elementary, one of the schools at the intersection, was upset two weeks ago when she was booed while speaking for the road closures at a commission meeting.

"I can only say that my statements were based on what I felt was best for students," Jordan said. "I don't like taking any stance that can be perceived as political, but I felt compelled to speak for the school because it is a safety issue."

Phillips said he agrees, but remains unsure whether he will vote his own opinion on this issue. The opposition, he said, has to be heard.

"I strongly believe that this is the right idea, but you have to acknowledge the majority because they've gotten out," Phillips said. "Even though you might deplore some of their tactics, you have to acknowledge them."

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