As the hot, rainy summer draws to a close, business owners along a busy stretch of U.S. 19 in Spring Hill have seen one obvious result.
Weeds. Lots of them. Along the right of way and especially in the median of the busy highway.
They haven't been mowed since June, and they're growing taller and taller.
"It's been an eyesore to our local businesses,'' said Carlos Martins, one of the owners of the Spring Hill Lanes bowling center.
Martins has heard the same concerns from neighboring businesses, so he called the Florida Department of Transportation.
The DOT, which is in charge of maintaining the roadway, has been inundated with complaints about the tall weeds, which not only make the area look unkempt, but also create visibility concerns for motorists in some cases. The complaints are coming from all over Hernando and Pasco counties.
In Pasco, affected areas include both State Road 52 and State Road 54, between U.S. 19 and U.S. 41. All of U.S. 19 through Pasco and Hernando has gone unmowed. In addition, the lack of mowing has affected State Road 50 in Hernando County from U.S. 19 to Colorado Street, west of Brooksville.
The problem? The DOT let two separate contracts to a South Florida mowing company, Pro-Evergreen Unlimited Inc. — one for Hernando for $189,359 and one for Pasco for $168,091. The company never showed up.
Pro-Evergreen operations manager Chris Amoroso said his company is in a legal dispute over the DOT contracts. He claims the state bid the project using a large amount of acreage to mow, then told the company that, due to highway construction, the area to mow — and the amount to be paid — would be far smaller.
"It was a bait and switch,'' Amoroso said. "They put the gun to your head and say you're going to mow it, and if you don't we're going after your bond.''
Since June, the DOT has been trying to use some prisoner crews to cut and pick up trash, and their own limited staff to cut where there are safety hazards, according to an email to Martins from Chuck Greif, an operations engineer from the DOT.
But it's not been enough to keep up with the weeds.
Last week, Martins talked to Hernando County Commissioner Diane Rowden, who sent an email to the office of state Sen. Wilton Simpson.
"We need help from the senator. U.S. 19 is disgraceful looking. The comments from the state seem to be excuses,'' Rowden wrote.
She noted that the unmowed roadways send the wrong message about the community.
"We need to clean up so people feel proud to invite friends and businesses to Hernando County,'' she wrote. "The state has spent millions of dollars on sidewalks that are grown over with grass.''
On Wednesday, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson told the Times that at a meeting earlier in the day, a new contractor agreed to begin mowing on Monday.