TAMPA — Lawyer Warren Dixon wasn't kidding about challenging a planned bridge over Interstate 75 in New Tampa.
A full four years after the city of Tampa got a wetlands permit for a bridge connecting New Tampa Boulevard to Commerce Park Boulevard, Dixon and two other residents have found a loophole to contest it.
Their argument: New Tampa no longer needs the bridge.
The loophole: Apparently, no one took out a legal advertisement in 2005 announcing the permit had been granted.
Had that notice been published, residents such as the retired Dixon and Evelyn Romano, a poet in West Meadows, would have had 20 days to file a response. Absent the notice, there is no such limit.
The bridge is all that remains of the East West Road, a highway connector long envisioned to ease gridlock in New Tampa. That road would have run from New Tampa Boulevard, which now dead-ends in West Meadows, to Interstate 275, relieving Bruce B. Downs Boulevard of its burden as the thoroughfare in and out of New Tampa.
After numerous agencies couldn't arrange funding for the East West Road, Mayor Pam Iorio pulled the plug on the project in 2008. But the city never abandoned its plans to build the bridge, now estimated to cost $18.2 million.
For more than a year, that project has pitted city officials against a group of Tampa Palms residents that include Dixon and his wife, Andrea Braboy.
They contend that to avoid a congested part of Bruce B. Downs, southbound motorists will cross the bridge and continue through West Meadows and Tampa Palms, endangering pedestrians and schoolchildren along the way.
Others in Tampa Palms have focused on Bruce B. Downs, a county road that is being widened in several phases. In the past year, they have persuaded county officials to rework their timetable so as not to create as much of a bottleneck.
Dixon has continued to oppose the bridge. Romano, who met him at a community meeting, has been working with him. Though Dixon is the lawyer, Romano happened upon the legal notice issue.
"I consider this a streak of luck," said Romano, who called the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission after she and her neighbors had speculated about where the city had gotten permission to build on the wetlands.
When she asked commission officials if the wetlands permit could be appealed, she said, they told her it wouldn't be possible if it had been advertised in a legal notice.
So she asked commission attorney Andrew Zodrow to find the legal notice, and he couldn't. Not only that, but circumstances have changed.
In an April letter to the city, Zodrow wrote that the county granted the 2005 permit because of the need for a route to transport children to school and ease congestion on Bruce B. Downs.
Since then, Zodrow wrote, a new middle school (Bartels Middle) has opened on the opposite side of I-75. And plans have moved forward to widen Bruce B. Downs.
In May, the commission assigned the case to a hearing officer.
"If I thought for a minute that they really needed the bridge, I would have never gotten involved," Romano said. "But they don't, and there are so many more worthwhile causes for the money."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or [email protected]