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County planners delay road decision

County road planners faced a tough choice Tuesday: whether to preserve a threatened part of Clearwater's billboard ban or kill a state study of traffic on Alt. U.S. 19. Members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) said they did not have enough information. So they put off the decision for a month.

Dunedin City Manager John Lawrence said Tuesday afternoon that he was surprised to hear planning money for a major road through that city was on the chopping block.

"We don't want that study to be put on hold," Lawrence said. "Alt. 19 is obviously very important, and the study is also critical to the Edgewater Drive revetments," where land is eroding into Clearwater Harbor.

"I should have known that before now," Lawrence said.

The MPO was to act on a request from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to name Alt. U.S. 19 as a "primary" road under federal rules rather than an "urban" road, as it is classified now.

That change would free up money for the study but also would subject the road to federal highway laws that make it harder for cities to get rid of existing billboards.

If the MPO approves the change, DOT officials said, it would accomplish three other things.

The study would free up federal money for the Alt. U.S. 19 study, which began in 1988. The study would determine how crowded the highway will become by 2010 and what should be done about it.

It would make Alt. U.S. 19 eligible for a bigger pot of federal money.

It would ensure that road builders would get first dibs on land along the corridor, helping to prevent paying increasingly expensive land prices in the future.

The change would make Alt. U.S. 19 subject to federal highway laws, which protect advertisers' investments more than state law and makes it harder for cities to get rid of billboards that already are standing.

That means Clearwater would have to pay billboard owners to take down their signs on Missouri Avenue, which is a segment of Alt. U.S. 19, Assistant County Attorney Jim Bennett said.

Bill Jonson, the leader of a citizens group that has pushed for

Clearwater's billboard ban and is pushing for stricter controls in the county, said he opposes the changes.

Highland extension plans dropped

CLEARWATER - County road planners Tuesday dropped long-range plans to extend Highland Avenue in Largo through a proposed lake that is to lie just east of the city's proposed Central Park.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization made the move at the city of Largo's request. City officials argued that building the road would take land out of a city park, confound longstanding efforts to build a drainage retention lake and be too expensive.

Highland Avenue ends at East Bay Drive. Until Tuesday, county plans called for it to wind south to Lake Avenue and eventually connect to Ulmerton Road.

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