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Widening of Old Oakhurst to begin

(ran Seminole edition)

Remember that controversial widening project for Old Oakhurst Road that pitted neighbors against county officials?

It has been 2{ years since representatives from both sides agreed to a compromise: erase two 4-foot-wide bike lanes and one 5-foot-wide sidewalk from the plans.

The contractor for the project has been given the go-ahead. Residents who live on or near the two-lane road that winds south from Park Boulevard to 66th Avenue N can expect to see changes any day.

"The design that we worked out with the citizens is what the utilities department is putting on the ground," said Rudy Garcia, a county engineer overseeing the project. "Nothing has changed from that."

The Pinellas County Utilities Department is involved with the project because it will install pipes underneath the 2.8-mile stretch of road so reclaimed water can be pumped to the south gulf beach towns. Once the pipes are buried, workers will make drainage improvements and will widen the road.

Old Oakhurst's two narrow lanes will be widened from 9 feet to 11 feet. Drainage ditches will be covered. One sidewalk will be built on the north side of the road. And 2-foot curbs will be added on both sides.

The project was supposed to be done last year, but it was delayed because of funding and scheduling problems, Garcia said. The cost of the project, which includes installing the reclaimed water pipes, widening the road, replacing ditches and improving drainage areas north of Park Boulevard, is $18-million.

So what can residents who live on or near the road expect?

Detours, for one, Garcia said. The contractor will do the work in phases, he explained, so the entire road won't be closed for the duration of the 18-month-long project.

"Most of the people have prepared themselves for this construction activity," Garcia said. "We're going to make it as acceptable as we can. They may have to drive a block further to get to their homes, but they'll be able to get there."

The conflict surrounding Old Oakhurst Road erupted in 1999, when county officials announced plans to widen the scenic road. Neighbors, some of whom called themselves members of Save Our Rural Environment, joined forces to halt the project, flooding Pinellas County commissioners with letters and faxes of protest. They also staged a noisy demonstration in front of the Pinellas County Courthouse.

Four days later, county commissioners decided to convene a panel of residents to help redesign the project. If the design had not been modified, what is now an 18-foot stretch of pavement would have become 50 feet of pavement with 6 feet of grass mixed in.

"It literally was going to destroy property values," said Jeff Etter, who lives off Old Oakhurst Road and was one of the neighborhood activists who protested the road project.

But Dennis DeLoach thinks the opposite. Although he no longer lives on Old Oakhurst, he said bike lanes and sidewalks are needed to make the road safer.

"The way it is now, it's unsafe to walk on or to ride a bike on," he said. "This is an improvement for that area and all of Seminole."