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Parkway bicycle trail meanders across peaceful, scenic country

This reporter finds joy cycling along a stretch of relatively natural land and dismay in realizing most of it soon will be developed.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000


The irony of the Suncoast Parkway's name, as has been pointed out frequently, is that it is likely to destroy most everything parklike in its path.

Green space will be devoured; roads will become more crowded; the air more polluted -- all of which is especially bad for bike riders.

But what is otherwise a disaster for cyclists does come with some compensation. The Turnpike District of the Florida Department of Transportation set aside $8-million of the total $507-million cost of the parkway to build a bike trail that runs parallel to the toll road. The district gave me permission to preview the trail Wednesday, though it is closed to the public until the parkway opens Feb. 4.

I found it to be smoothly paved, thoughtfully landscaped, and, at least now that the road next to it is still closed to traffic, remarkably peaceful and scenic.

Eventually, it will run about 40 miles from Lutz-Lake Fern Road in northern Hillsborough County to U.S. 98 near the Hernando-Citrus county line. For now, the northern trailhead is a parking lot off Grove Road near State Road 50 in central Hernando. Twenty-one miles to the south, the paved surface gives way to graded dirt, though the remaining 9 miles to Lutz-Lake Fern Road are due to be finished about the time the parkway opens. The 10 miles north of SR 50 in Hernando will not be completed until November 2002.

Starting out, I was surprised to find so much open country just out of sight of one of the busiest highways in Hernando. The parking lot off Grove Road is surrounded by pines. So is the first stretch of the trail, which climbs and descends several small hills left in place to give the trail more variety even as the roadbed was leveled.

In fact, most of the trail, at least the part I rode, is undeveloped. At the same time, the wide black road next to it, and the green exit signs, make Brooksville and Spring Hill suddenly seem like major destinations -- which, as outer suburbs to Tampa, they will be.

So you have two sensations: joy in discovering a swath of relatively natural land in the middle of Hernando and Pasco counties, and dismay in realizing that, fairly soon, most of it will be developed. The game, as I rode along, became trying to figure out what land would be built on and when.

The woods north of Powell Road in Hernando and east of the parkway are mostly divided into residential parcels; it seemed reasonable to guess that these would sell quickly once the parkway opens. To the west, behind a fence and cedar-tree buffer, construction crews were working on the newest section of the Silverthorn subdivision. Farther south is county land that is being feverishly promoted for industrial development by the Economic Development Commission.

From the crossing at Spring Hill Drive, I could see some of the first sprawl that has followed the parkway, and decided to stop and take advantage. I got a sub sandwich from Publix at Barclay Avenue and -- what was especially welcome on this freezing morning -- a fresh and blisteringly hot cup of coffee from 7-Eleven.

Back on the trail, I admired the effort that went into shielding it from future development as well as from the road itself. The trail is at least 50 feet removed from the parkway, and, whenever possible, it curves behind stands of existing trees. In more open areas, native longleaf pines and live oaks have been planted to create a buffer.

This infuriated the only bandit trail users I met up with -- Peg Weber, 52, and her friend, Mary Smith, 39, both of Spring Hill. They are in-line skaters, and Weber said the pine needles and acorns could trip them up.

"That's a ridiculous thing to do: put this beautiful trail in and then plant pines and oaks," she said.

Otherwise, she said, "the trail is great," and she has been using it regularly for months, despite orange-and-white barricades at every entrance. Though she often sees Florida Highway Patrol troopers racing up and down the road, she said, none have ever stopped her.

Then she has been lucky, said Joanne Hurley, spokeswoman for the parkway project. Hurley said anyone using the trail now can be prosecuted for trespassing, and, once I had passed into northern Pasco County, I found out she is right.

I was startled by the whoop of a trooper's siren behind me. He then leaned out of his patrol car and told me I was not allowed on the trail. For probably the first time ever in such a situation, I had a reasonable explanation: I told the trooper I had Hurley's permission, gave him her number, and he let me ride on.

Oddly, the farther south I traveled, and the nearer I came to Tampa, the wilder the land became. Northern Pasco was quieter than Hernando, with pine plantations, isolated orange groves and wooded yards of mobile homes. Somewhere north of State Road 52, I began to see more pastures, big rolls of hay, the rusted roofs of old barns, as well as darting warblers, blue birds and kestrels.

South of SR 52, the parkway enters one of the largest blank areas on Pasco County road maps, most of it state-owned land that was formerly part of the Serenova development or the Starkey family ranch. A bridge crosses the Pithlachascotee River, which, even though it has nearly dried up during the drought, supports ferns, cypress and tall water oaks. Pine flatwoods with an unbroken understory of palmettos covered the higher ground around it.

"The parkway is really going to open up that area between State Road 52 and 54," Hurley said. Because most of the land is publicly owned, she said, "a lot of that will always remain as you saw it today."

Not all of it, though.

The end of the trail is marked by a "no trespassing" sign that, with an accompanying paragraph from Florida statutes, seems to mean business.

An exit and toll plaza are planned for this site, once Pasco County completes the extension of Ridge Road. Earlier this month, the Sierra Club notified the county that it intended to file a lawsuit to stop the extension.

Standing there, where the only sound was the flapping of the tape on the survey stakes, I found myself rooting for the Sierra Club.

Seeing the signs that had already been erected for the toll plaza, with the familiar lane designations for drivers who need change and those who don't, I couldn't help feeling that the club didn't have much of a chance.

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