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Northern extension of Upper Tampa Bay Trail a sure bet, Hillsborough leaders say

ODESSA — There's a link missing from plans for the Upper Tampa Bay Trail.

But the project is not dead.

Instead, officials say, the trail will someday continue north of Peterson Road Park, although it's just not clear yet where one piece of that extension will be.

Hillsborough County commissioners recently gave up on their plan for part of the 15-mile trail after property owners objected to extending it on their land east of Gunn Highway.

The county's plan for the trail relies on the voluntary cooperation of property owners, according to Mike Kelly, director of the county's real estate department.

At this point, he said, acquiring that land would likely require filing a costly eminent domain lawsuit.

One alternative is to look for a path west of Gunn Highway, perhaps including land St. Petersburg owns in and near Lake Rogers Park, Kelly said.

"We're optimistic over the long term we can work something out," he said.

Talk of the change had alarmed trail advocates.

Carrollwood Bicycle Emporium owner Brian Eckman said he went to the County Commission's meeting Feb. 18 worried that commissioners might kill the extension altogether.

"We get people asking us constantly when it's going to be done because they've been hearing about it for years," Eckman said.

Kelly said officials are determined to find an alternate corridor for the trail. "We are committed to get this project done," he told commissioners.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe likewise said he was "100 percent" behind the project.

That was reassuring, Eckman said. "I was much happier going out than I was going in."

A popular path

The Upper Tampa Bay Trail covers 7.5 miles and is used by more than 100,000 walkers, runners, skaters and bikers a year.

Officials plan for its extension to go north from where it now ends at Peterson Road Park and to connect to the Suncoast Trail, which starts at Lutz-Lake Fern Road. The connection will create an uninterrupted trail from Tampa Bay into Hernando County.

The Upper Tampa Bay Trail extension is expected to cost $13.4 million. Of that, only $4.5 million is funded. Because officials have yet to identify the rest of the funding, — government sources, grants or something else — it's impossible to say when the project might be done, Kelly said.

Moot idea

The property that commissioners decided not to pursue lies in a series of strips between Cosme and Copeland roads.

It is owned by Carolyn Wilson, who plans to develop a subdivision with 4- to 7-acre lots and a common area with stables, and John McMullen, who has a nursery on Cosme Road.

In 2007, the county sent the property owners a notice saying it might take a strip through their properties through eminent domain if they did not settle, said their attorney, Mark Bentley.

The problem was the alignment went through the middle of Wilson's planned subdivision and in front of McMullen's nursery.

County officials "didn't recognize the implications of doing it," Bentley said.

That led to lengthy discussions with the county and the Feb. 18 decision not to pursue the land.

That property, however, did not make up the full length of the planned extension.

Officials have land rights secured and funds identified for a piece of the extension along Lutz-Lake Fern Road. Construction is scheduled to begin on that section in the county's 2009-10 fiscal year.

Another piece needed for the extension goes through the Brooker Creek Headwaters Nature Preserve, which is controlled by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Officials from that agency and the county still need to work out a formal agreement to put the trail through the preserve.

Two commissioners welcomed the decision not to seek the Wilson and McMullen properties as a correction to a project that had gone astray.

Commissioner Jim Norman said it was wasteful to even contemplate looking at land the county would have to acquire through eminent domain, rather than simply working with willing property owners.

"This is getting it back on track," Norman said.

Looking forward

County officials plan to hold a public meeting soon to discuss the project. They are expected to report to the commission on their progress in finding an alternate route in May or June.

In the meantime, Eckman, the Carrollwood Bicycle Emporium owner, said advocates should stay in touch with commissioners to convey how many people are waiting to see the trail finished.

"The more they see that," he said, "the more it stays on their radar."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com.

Northern extension of Upper Tampa Bay Trail a sure bet, Hillsborough leaders say 02/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2009 3:30am]
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