A developer closely linked to former House Speaker Ray Sansom is pushing for a new toll road to slice through a nature preserve that taxpayers spent $16.5 million to save from development.
"They couldn't have picked a worse place to put this road," said Matt Aresco, the biologist who manages the preserve.
The eight-member board in charge of building the toll road was created by the Legislature in 2005 through a bill sponsored by Sansom, R-Destin. Sansom's brief tenure as House speaker this year has led to a grand jury investigation.
The toll road board's vice chairman is Jay Odom, the developer whose ties to Sansom are among the subjects now being investigated by the grand jury.
The work of the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority was close to Sansom's heart. When Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed giving the authority $3 million in 2007, Sansom told the Northwest Florida Daily News that he regarded that as "about the most important $3 million in the state budget."
Odom, who built a subdivision that would benefit from the proposed toll road, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Board chairman Randall McElhenny said he can understand why Aresco and others might be worried about seeing an authority map that shows a road being built through the middle of the nature preserve.
But those concerns are premature, he said, because at this point the routes are only conceptual.
"They're lines on a map," he said. "Those lines don't really mean anything except as a concept."
The preserve is older than Odom's road board. In 2002, real estate investor M.C. Davis bought 48,000 acres of farm and timberland east of Eglin Air Force Base called Nokuse (pronounced "Nuh-GO-zee," an Indian word for bear) Plantation. He hired Aresco to guide its restoration — filling in ditches that had drained wetlands, replanting longleaf pines, conducting controlled burns.
Three years later, Davis sold to the state the development rights on 18,000 acres of Nokuse Plantation, granting the state something known as a "conservation easement" that can never be developed. Cost to the taxpayers: $16.5 million.
Now that the taxpayers have paid to preserve it, Odom's board wants to bisect it with a major four-lane highway, Aresco said.
As set up by Sansom, the toll road board has the power to select routes for a whole series of roads and bridges across the Panhandle, condemn any property needed for construction and then borrow money to pay for the work, to be paid off using tolls.
The board is supposed to pick routes that improve travel times through the Panhandle's coastal areas, enhance hurricane evacuation and "promote economic development along the corridor," according to the authority's attorney.
Critics say "economic development" is the real reason for most of the roads being planned. The road that would cut through Nokuse would also funnel traffic to a subdivision called Hammock Bay that Odom has built outside the town of Freeport.
"I don't know how he can vote on this when he has a development in close proximity that would benefit from it," Aresco said.
The toll road system being planned by Odom's board would also benefit the state's biggest developer, the St. Joe Co. It would provide direct access to a new $330 million airport being built 20 miles north of Panama City on land St. Joe has donated.
St. Joe officials hope the new taxpayer-financed airport will spur the development of the company's thousands of acres surrounding the airport, the first to be built since Sept. 11 sent the airline industry into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover.
"We see this whole road system as a real boondoggle," Aresco said. "We've been calling it the road to nowhere that goes to the airport to nowhere."
Most of the existing highways that the new toll roads are supposed to supplement, such as State Road 20, are far from clogged, the biologist said. So the highway through the preserve "doesn't make any sense economically."
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.