DUNEDIN — Nearly 700 residents have signed petitions urging the city to reverse a road closure they say is endangering their neighborhood's safety.
When city commissioners voted 4-1 this winter to block off Patricia Avenue between McLean Street and San Salvador Drive, they had hoped to put an end to years of complaints about excess traffic and speeding through the residential neighborhood.
But residents say the March 23 closure has created other problems. Two months later, city leaders continue to be bombarded with angry e-mails and impassioned City Hall speeches by residents who are worried about access to and from the neighborhood during bad weather or medical emergencies.
There have been complaints about teens drawing obscene graffiti and smoking marijuana behind the large, unsightly orange and white barricades.
But perhaps most irksome of all, residents say, is that they didn't even know there were talks going on at City Hall about traffic in the neighborhood.
"How do 665 people not know about this?" asked Linda Chidlow, whose home on McLean Street is next to the barrier. She and her husband, John, who spearheaded one of three groups of residents that independently began collecting signatures, are worried their white fence might be graffiti artists' next target.
"I sit back and shake my head at how a decision that severely impacts the safety of the community could be made," she said, "and they didn't care enough to get our input."
Commissioners acknowledged during last week's meeting that they could have better advertised their plan to vote on the issue in February. At that meeting, city traffic engineer Joan Rice recommended a two-phase approach: Test speed humps first, and close the road only if those failed to calm down traffic.
Mayor Dave Eggers voted against immediate closure, citing concerns about recreating previously resolved traffic problems.
"We're going to have other unintended consequences that are going to come," he said.
His colleagues, however, decided — and two residents in attendance agreed — that moving directly to the final phase would more quickly and more cheaply fix the traffic problem.
Their reasoning: Motorists likely would continue to speed between humps or shift to residential roads without them.
Dunedin fire Chief Bud Meyer submitted a letter saying he couldn't recommend either speed humps or street closure because both would hamper his department's response time by 10 to 40 seconds, and speed humps might also damage fire trucks.
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski countered that the department had kept its 4 1/2-minute response time before Patricia Avenue was extended through the neighborhood in 1994 to accommodate traffic from a new subdivision.
Added Commissioner Julie Scales: "We're just speculating what the problems will be if we shut it down, so I would say Phase 1 should be to shut down Patricia … and if (that) is not the solution, then we revisit the problem."
Officials say they passed out notices on doors about the impending vote and posted signs in the neighborhood.
But residents say the signs only mentioned a "traffic flow study," and did not indicate it was specific to the neighborhood.
Some residents have said in e-mails to the commission or during meetings that they are relieved the road is closed. But a petition circulated by Joan and Mert McMahon and a neighbor garnered nearly 300 of the 665 signatures that city clerk Denise Schlegel said had been submitted as of Thursday.
Schlegel said the petitions will be reviewed for duplications or discrepancies. After school resumes, the city will perform comparative traffic studies to be brought before commissioners around October. And Eggers said the city will review ways to better communicate with residents.
Meanwhile, the petition campaign continues.
Like the Chidlows, the McMahons said this is the first time they've become involved in a city issue. But this issue touched them personally.
Mert McMahon said he doesn't believe speeding is a good reason to block off one of two main entrances to a neighborhood.
"If there was speeding downtown, in front of City Hall, I'm sure they wouldn't close the street," he said.
And at a time when gas prices are soaring, the busy retirees said the closure has added five to 10 minutes to their daily commute to places like the library, church and downtown. Furthermore, Joan McMahon, 67, prefers that her husband, 82, uses back roads.
Their alternatives are busy roads, like Michigan Avenue and Pinehurst Avenue, which gets a lot of heavy traffic from Dunedin High School and the Dunedin Community Center.
"We moved to this city for that reason: the close proximity to things. We knew there was going to be traffic because that's what you get in a city. And I think all of us who bought homes here knew it was next to the high school and there would be traffic," Joan said.
"No one wants to cause any animosity. Our goal is to have the road reopened," Joan McMahon said, "and we plan to see that through."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.