Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Fatalities raise concerns about proposed development on Bloomingdale Avenue


VALRICO — Recent fatalities on Bloomingdale Avenue have some residents concerned the already-overcrowded corridor can't handle even more traffic.

But there will be more traffic if a proposed big-box development is built near the Bloomingdale Library.

Bloomingdale, a major east-east corridor for the county, has seen four fatalities in 2014.

The deaths occurred between Jan. 4 and Feb. 28 and though they didn't occur during peak traffic time, Hillsborough County deputies noted that the fatalities took place within a segment of Bloomingdale Avenue known for having a high frequency of accidents each month.

On Jan. 4, Grisel Perez Garofalo, 48, of Riverview died after she was struck by a car shortly after 7:30 p.m. as she crossed Bloomingdale Avenue at Ivy Boulevard.

Two people were killed on Feb. 9 when their car crashed into a utility pole at the intersection of Bloomingdale and Kings avenues.

The victims were Valrico resident David Casey Martin, 21, and Catherine Marie Loux, 20, of Lithia.

Five vehicles struck and ran over Ronald J. Sandalic, 57, around 4:30 a.m. Feb. 28 on Bloomingdale Avenue near Maze Lane. His body was thrown 70 feet after being hit by a car and then hit again by four other vehicles before deputies arrived on scene and detoured traffic for several hours.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham expressed concern but noted that none of the fatalities occurred during rush hour.

"They're not peak hours that these are happening, though they are tragic," Higginbotham said. "These were all at times of day when we don't have traffic issues."

But some residents, such as George Niemann, argue that traffic concerns aren't only related to the time of day, but the larger issues with the road itself.

"To use the time factor to marginalize those occurrences is really terrible and insensitive," Niemann said. "It has to do with the road itself, as well. It's not only driver error. With more cars during peak traffic hours, the deficiencies in the roads become even more of a factor."

Parts of Bloomingdale Avenue already failing

Bloomingdale's intersections often rate among the top 25 in the county each month for accidents, especially at Bell Shoals Road and Kings Avenue, according to data from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

More than 100 accidents were reported along Bloomingdale Avenue in January and February alone, sheriff's records show.

Segments of Bloomingdale from U.S. 301 to Bell Shoals Road are listed as failed roads by the county. Bloomingdale Avenue from Bell Shoals Road to Lithia Pinecrest Road is graded as a D and operates at 82 percent capacity, according to the most recent level of service report.

Deputies said it's a dangerous road that is critically overcrowded. Public works are attempting to provide engineering solutions and the sheriff's office works on traffic enforcement, but accidents continue to mount.

"When everything's perfect, Bloomingdale is just right at the breaking point," said Cpl. Greg Wynn. "The smallest little problem will cause a major breakdown."

Red Cast Development plans to build a big-box store, five outparcels and 261 apartments on the property east of the Bloomingdale Library — a move that is expected to add nearly 8,000 more trips a day to the already overcrowded roads nearby.

Although some of those cars would exit onto Lithia Pinecrest Road, most of the traffic would filter onto the segment of Bloomingdale currently over 80 percent capacity, documents show. The increase in traffic could push the beleaguered road over the edge to a failed road status.

Tom Hand, senior vice president for Redstone Development, declined to comment on how the development would impact the accident-plagued roadway.

No easy solution to traffic challenges

Red Cast did agree to pay the county a proportionate share contribution of $564,000 to alleviate traffic issues within the 3-mile radius of the development. However, opponents of the development question the impact of those dollars.

"There's not a whole lot that can be done with that money," said attorney Pamela Hatley, who is representing residents opposed to the development; they're brought a lawsuit against the county. "We're talking about putting in a development that's going to bring a whole lot of traffic to that area. What little improvement you might make is going to be overwhelmed by that."

In response to a question at a Feb. 4 public meeting asking what could be done with the approximate half a million dollars provided by the developer, residents were told "road construction is expensive, so options are limited."

The Hillsborough County Commission also allocated $5.5 million in the last budget cycle to help offset some of the impact of the proposed development.

Current approved construction projects for the Bloomingdale area range from about $500,000 for a traffic signal at Durant and S Valrico roads to more than $2.25 million to improve the intersection and Bloomingdale Avenue and Culbreath Road.

Higginbotham said he recently met with staff to go over plans for additional funding for wider sidewalks and additional lighting along Bloomingdale Avenue.

"These issues are being addressed," Higginbotham said. "It's a concern not only for law enforcement but for everyone here at the county center."

Though nearly all parties in east Hillsborough agree there are traffic issues along Bloomingdale Avenue, there's much debate deciding the best way to solve those issues.

Higginbotham said there is a back and forth between residents and staff members over using money from the county and developer to expand Bloomingdale Avenue, as some residents want, or to improve intersections with high accident rates.

Big-box opponents await court ruling

Residents who battle traffic and safety issues daily have fumed over the plans for the big-box development since they became public last year.

Those opposed to the development formed the Coordinated Active Neighborhoods for Development Organization, or CAN-DO. One of the group's primary issues focuses on the traffic the development would bring to already failed and overcrowded roads in the Bloomingdale area and the safety problems that could arise for children in the area.

CAN-DO committee member Fred Brown filed a lawsuit against the county last fall, contesting the 2011 amendment to the land development code that they say made way for the development.

The county filed a motion to dismiss, which was heard by the court Tuesday. The judge heard both sides but did not issue a ruling, instead opting to take more time to review the case.

If the judge decides not to dismiss the case, Niemann said the decision will reinforce the CAN-DO members' belief that they have a right to have their case heard in court.

"The opposition is attempting to get it thrown out, but we think it's our right to have this case heard before a judge because we believe firmly that the approval of this development was done in an underhanded and less than transparent way," Niemann said.

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.

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