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Guest column | Lesley Blackner

Road is concrete symbol of problems with sprawl

Has anyone thought of renaming the toll road running through the middle of Pasco and Hernando counties the "Cone Porkway?'' You know, the toll road that came online at just the right moment, when cheap gas and easy money converged to unleash a perfect storm of developers and speculators gone wild.

Oh, the bubble was sweet while it lasted; no questions asked, no money down, just hope and hype because the market couldn't be wrong. Don't worry. Be happy. Go shopping. Go out to eat. And you can always refinance!

That big toll road, slicing like a can opener for 42 miles through virgin land, cost about $1-billion. Its official purpose was to alleviate traffic on U.S. 19 and U.S. 41. By the way, how is the traffic there these days?

But you know the real purpose: Build it and they will come.

Every day you now live with what happens when they build it without any thought for the future or the quality of life of the poor suckers already on the ground. Never mind the schools are packed like sardines and there is an unending water crisis. Never mind that impact fees for new construction do not begin to cover the costs of new infrastructure and minimal services. Perhaps, like so many others, you are upside down in your little piece of paradise, owing more on your house than it is worth. Add to that jobs far from the sprawl frontier and gas surpassing $4 per gallon.

Did anyone have a Plan B?

Which brings me back to the giant toll road, officially called the "Suncoast Parkway." You probably missed the news that Michael Cone, former head of Cone Constructors, the general contractor for the Suncoast Parkway, is now serving a 20-year sentence for defrauding the Department of Transportation and committing bankruptcy fraud. Even his wife is in federal prison for fraud.

Ten years ago I represented the Sierra Club in an ill-fated lawsuit regarding the toll road, which paved hundreds of acres of wetlands and unleashed a tidal wave of sprawl. The court ruled we waited too late to file the case and that the mitigation for the destruction wrought by the toll road was adequate. That mitigation is the Serenova Preserve, truly a jewel of our ecological heritage, a piece of old Florida supposedly "saved" for generations yet born.

Today, Serenova is fine, if you don't think about the Ridge Road extension, a four-lane highway Pasco County is desperate to run right through the middle of it. Pasco will mitigate the mitigation.

The toll road was my great education in Florida land use. I learned one big thing: Florida land use is just politics. It's the votes of five county commissioners. In most places it takes only a majority to vote "yes'' and change the community forever.

During the bubble, Pasco and Hernando commissioners just wouldn't say no to the endless, shiny development dreams. What were they thinking? Clearly, the power to change the local growth plan is just way too much power concentrated in the hands of five people.

Understanding this inevitably led me to Florida Hometown Democracy, the proposed constitutional amendment that will put comprehensive plan changes approved by a county or city commission to referendum before local voters. Voters should have the final say over changes to their community's growth plan because you are the ones who must live with the consequences.

Someone wise recently observed that the measure of a civilization is not merely what it creates, but also what it refuses to destroy. But we must learn from mistakes and undertake genuine reform. Do you really want more of the past?

Lesley Blackner is an attorney and the president of Florida Hometown Democracy, www.floridahometown democracy or toll-free 1-866-779-5513. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.

Road is concrete symbol of problems with sprawl 06/29/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2008 10:21pm]
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