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    State move lets overpass plan proceed

    Ending a condemnation lawsuit with a landowner will mean the Drew overpass will cost more, but the state DOT says it's time to get on with it.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- The state has dropped a lawsuit to condemn the last bit of land needed for a U.S. 19 overpass at Drew Street and will redesign the $69-million project to bypass it.

    The Florida Department of Transportation announced that it quit its legal battle on Monday, seeking to end a five-year dispute with the owners of the Clearwater 19 Commerce Center, an office plaza just north of Drew Street on U.S. 19.

    Before Monday's events, the legal scrimmaging to take up to 2 acres from office center owner Frank Kunnen Jr. had already delayed the start of the overpass' construction by several months, until summer 2001. The fight had spilled into 17 court volumes and involved more than 100 different parties, many of them tenants in the office complex.

    "The (overpass) project has been delayed in the past, but it's not going to be delayed anymore because of us dismissing the lawsuit and doing the redesign now," said DOT spokeswoman Marian Pscion. "We really need the job to get under construction."

    But the legal wrangling may not be over yet.

    Kunnen's attorney, James Helinger Jr. of Clearwater, said he plans to take additional legal action against the state for designing the overpass to cut off access to the Commerce Center from U.S. 19.

    Also, Helinger alleges, the overpass' new design will still cause drainage problems for his client because the DOT's drainage calculations are dead wrong, according to consultants that he has hired to review the figuring.

    Even if the state doesn't take any of his land now, Kunnen still wants an unspecified amount of compensation -- possibly several million dollars -- for such problems that could result from the overpass' poorly designed structure, Helinger said.

    The state, on the other hand, is quite comfortable with the proposed redesign -- and believes it will cause no major problems for Kunnen's property, Pscion said.

    The state DOT will have to add any monetary damages awarded to Kunnen -- if he is successful in future legal battles -- to a growing tab for the overpass.

    Redesigning the overpass as a result of not taking Kunnen's office complex land will cost the state up to $4-million, Pscion estimated, bringing the total costs of the overpass project to about $69.4-million.

    In the redesign, the overpass bridge will be lengthened, and retention ponds once planned to be on Kunnen's property will be located underneath the overpass structure on the north side of Drew, Pscion said.

    Some other ponds flanking the overpass on property the state already owns also will be enlarged, she said.

    By comparison, the state had estimated that buying Kunnen's land would cost at least $3.8-million by a state appraisal. Kunnen's asking price, however, was reportedly double that. Two mediations failed to negotiate a compromise.

    In addition to redesign costs, the state DOT also will have to pay for an undetermined amount of legal and consulting fees rung up by Kunnen's legal fight against the state's condemnation proceedings over the past year.

    The fees could easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Helinger said.

    Pinellas County also was involved in the legal quibbling over the overpass, as owner of an adjacent tract that is home to the county's highway maintenance office near the Commerce Center.

    The state needed some of the county's land for its project, and the county wanted to work with the state -- as long as Pinellas officials could maintain access to their facility through a back road from its site, said Assistant County Attorney Betsy Steg.

    The state has agreed to put a traffic light on Drew Street, Steg said, to ensure that county vehicles can turn easily onto the road. As for the dispute with Kunnen, Steg said, it seemed like the case was dragging on forever.

    "I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel for that one," she said. "I saw no one coming close to settlement."

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