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Citrus extension critics not giving up

Worries about Suncoast Parkway's effects on the environment are reiterated at

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2000


CRYSTAL RIVER -- Undaunted by recent political and legal setbacks, Suncoast Parkway opponents went on the offensive Sunday, charging that the proposed second leg is based on bogus projections and will destroy the pastoral qualities of Citrus County.

"The people of Citrus County don't want the road," Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach attorney hired by the Sierra Club to fight the project, said at the rally held at the National Guard Armory. "This road is being built by developers for developers."

More than 200 people attended the afternoon event and many of them signed letters to Gov. Jeb Bush, urging him to eliminate funding for the Citrus extension, which would run 26 miles from U.S. 98 in Hernando County to U.S. 19 at Red Level.

The letter calls for a citizen referendum on the issue, an option the County Commission has rejected, and refers to a recent Times article that found revenue and traffic projections for the parkway had been grossly overstated.

A consulting company, URS Greiner Woodward Clyde of San Francisco, originally estimated that the Suncoast would be so popular that it would generate $70 million in 2002 and $119 million in 2010.

In February, URS said the figures were closer to $14 million in 2002 and $31 million in 2010. The parkway would likely not pass a financial feasibility test if the revised figures were used. The Suncoast Parkway is being promoted as a high-speed, north-south alternative route to Interstate 75 and U.S. 19.

The first phase, 42 miles in all, is expected to open in January and begins at the Veterans Expressway in Hillsborough County and runs north to U.S. 98 in Hernando County.

Janet Masaoy, a Pine Ridge resident and leader of Citizens Opposed to the Suncoast Tollway, asserted Sunday that proponents of the road are scaring local officials into thinking an extension is necessary to mitigate traffic on U.S. 19.

Because the proposed extension would be near aquifers and wells, it raises serious environmental concerns, Masaoy said. If a truck carrying hazardous material overturns, those waterways could be contaminated, she explained.

"This area, hydrologically, is the crown jewel," said Beth Connor of the Sierra Club, which sponsored Sunday's gathering. The state, she added, could eliminate the need for the road by improving sections of U.S. 19 and 41.

To give them added authority, organizers brought an expert in development issues, former University of Florida professor Earl Starnes. If the Suncoast Parkway extends into Citrus County, he said, sprawl would be "inevitable as the morning sun."

Starnes said the parkway would not only encourage commercial growth but also make Citrus County more attractive to people from the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. As a result, land values would increase as would the cost of municipal services, such as police and fire protection, and education.

Crystal River resident Edgar Williams said he opposes the Suncoast for several reasons: It would upset the natural habitat of wildlife in the region, threaten water quality, and it would hurt existing business along U.S. 19 because fewer vehicles would travel that route.

Despite the charged atmosphere, even the most optimistic of opponents had trouble seeing over the growing support for the Citrus extension.

The County Commission has voted unanimously to ask state lawmakers to expedite the second phase. The commission, which fears traffic will overwhelm Citrus County unless the parkway is extended, has rejected calls for a referendum, insisting that planning matters should not be settled in that manner.

"It's a very undemocratic situation we have here," Blackner said in an interview Sunday. A flier was handed out asking people to vote for commission candidates who support the referendum: Millie King, Zoe McLendon and Bruce Van Vlack.

Bush has included $47 million in a state transportation spending plan for the Suncoast Parkway II. The second leg is subject to environmental and financial feasibility studies but the Bush plan is a strong indication the state's top leaders want the toll road to run through Citrus County.

The Sierra Club is having little luck fighting the Suncoast Parkway in the courts. Last spring, a U.S. District Court judge in Jacksonville rejected the lawsuit, saying the environmental group failed to show the highway would harm the animals. Judge John H. Moore also said the group should not have waited until millions of dollars had been spent building the road.

The ruling is on appeal in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

"From everything that I've read and studied, it's inevitable," said Josh Wooten, a candidate for Citrus County Commission District 5, who attended Sunday's meeting.

"So we have to make it work for us. We have to plan for it and as it comes through and make sure it fits into our semirural community." Wooten said the road's impact could be mitigated through, among other ways, landscape buffers and zoning at access points "so it doesn't sprawl around."

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