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No happy medium over SR 44 median

A state transportation official carefully laid out the ground rules for the meeting on plans to install a median on State Road 44 from County Road 581 to just west of Croft Road.

No shouting. No insults. And no interrupting.

John Temple, district director of operations for the Department of Transportation, was interrupted at least half a dozen times.

"I apologize, but can we get beyond past history and get up to the plans as they are today?" asked state Sen. Karen Johnson, who has written numerous letters on behalf of area businesses that oppose the median. "Can they go ahead and give their concerns? That's why they're here."

Added County Commissioner Jim Fowler: "When are we going to hear from the people who are affected by this?"

And from Dave Langer, owner of Rent-a-Wreck: "With all due respect, sir, have you ever traversed this street we're talking about?"

Temple did his best to respond. He pointed to studies showing that a divided highway is safer than one with a continuous, two-way turn lane.

He explained that the state made these design changes last year and notified area businesses through mailings and fliers. A public hearing was held, but only a handful of people showed up, he said.

And he disputed claims that Wednesday's meeting, held at Lecanto Middle School, was a sham, designed merely to appease angry residents.

"It has been suggested that DOT is here just as a formality," he said. "We wouldn't be here tonight wasting your time or ours. Nothing is cast in concrete, shall we say."

But the more than 100 people, including several elected officials, didn't seem satisfied. They demanded to know why the DOT was proceeding with plans that the entire community seemed to oppose.

"If city officials don't want it, if the senator doesn't want it and the businesses don't want it, why are we going through this process?" Langer asked.

Both the Inverness City Council and the Citrus County Commission have sent letters to the DOT opposing the median, which is part of the overall widening of SR 44 from two lanes to four. The project is expected to be finished in October 1996.

The letters from the city and the county cite the same concerns business owners have raised: Customers will be inconvenienced, drivers attempting to make U-turns will pose safety problems, and large trucks will have a tough time getting to businesses to make deliveries.

With an ambitious road work program under way statewide, Temple acknowledged he has heard similar concerns in other communities. But he said the agency was bound by certain legislative decisions that guide the improvement of state roadways.

When asked if there was a specific piece of legislation that required four-lane highways to be built with raised medians, Temple didn't have a chance to answer.

"I am your legislator, and I can tell you, no, we did not pass a law saying there had to be a median," Johnson said.

Temple said the DOT would take all of the comments "under advisement" and "do the right thing."

Charles Clendenny, owner of CFC Fence, said the DOT had not been completely up front with the SR 44 businesses in the past.

"Five years ago when you came to us with this plan, most people sold their property for the highway with the understanding that we were going to get a five-lane highway," he said. "All we're asking is that you go back to the original plans."