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Convenience has its cost in traffic noise

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Some cars are louder than others, Julia Wenslow has noticed, and the ones with thumping stereos are the worst.

She mentioned this discovery to her husband Thursday night, when they usually would be asleep. Jeffrey Wenslow found the headlights the most intrusive. They provided an unwelcome and near-constant light show on their walls.

Coming to grips with a new four-lane highway, the Belcher Road extension between Tampa and Alderman roads, just a few dozen feet from their bedroom was a bigger adjustment than the Wenslows thought it would be.

They aren't alone.

Though residents said they all knew the road was coming one day _ it had been on the county's long-range plans for more than two decades _ many who own homes that back up to the newly opened road say it is more than they bargained for.

"It's like having the Daytona 500 racetrack behind your house for the rest of your life," said Jeffrey Wenslow, 46, a landscape superintendent for Lansbrook. "I'm not against progress, but at what price?"

Like many of his neighbors, Wenslow hoped the county would build a landscaped berm, or a wall, or _ something.

No such luck.

"We don't ever do that," Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said.

As a matter of policy, the county just does not pay for berms or privacy walls next to newly constructed roads, said Keith Wicks, Pinellas County public works director. It's not viewed as fair, he said, for taxpayer dollars to be used to improve the situation of a private homeowner.

There's also an issue of equality, he said. If the county built a wall for one group of residents, he said, it would have to do it for them all. And then the county might also be asked to put up walls around roads it has already built several years ago. It's just not practical, he said.

Walls are expensive, as many residents along Belcher Road have learned.

Wenslow said his homeowners association estimates it will cost more than $50,000 to build a 6-foot concrete privacy wall. In anticipation of the new road, the association set aside some money. But that wasn't enough, and each of the roughly 60 homeowners in Independence Square has until Thursday to pony up $500.

Residents whose homes back up to the highway on the other side of Belcher Road aren't as lucky as the Wenslows. In the 77-home Hidden Meadows development, the cost of a wall, if one is built, will have to be shouldered entirely by the homeowners whose properties back up to Belcher Road. That could end up costing each of them $5,000 to $10,000, said Fred Stadler, president of the neighborhood association.

Though many residents worry about the security of the neighborhood now and children's safety if motorists use the neighborhood as a cut-through, those whose homes don't back up to Belcher don't feel that they ought to pay for a wall, Stadler said.

The new extension north of Tampa Road looks like a "slum" compared to the finely landscaped portion south of Tampa Road, where the residents in developments of upscale homes paid for attractive brick privacy walls, said Karen Milheiser, 44, whose home on Still Meadow Circle backs up to the new road.

If the county doesn't help defray the cost of a wall, she fears there will be an unattractive hodgepodge of wall types _ based on what people are able to afford _ as you go along Belcher north of Tampa Road.

Wicks said the new medians will be landscaped similarly to those south of Tampa Road, though he didn't know when that work would start. And the overgrown grass in the median and along the new road will be cut, he said.

Meanwhile, the county has begun design work to extend Belcher Road another 2.2 miles north, from Alderman Road to Klosterman Road. Construction isn't scheduled to begin until 2007, and the road will take about 18 months to construct, said Jim Collins, county engineer.

The county will hold a public meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday to discuss that project.

The project has already met with strong opposition from residents of the Fox Chase development. The new route will separate about 150 townhouse and condominium owners from their clubhouse and pool.

"They're dividing the whole community," said Diane Murphy, a Fox Chase homeowners association board member.

The completion of the section between Tampa and Alderman is a harbinger for Fox Chase residents, said Murphy, 57.

"It makes the hair on the back of your head stand up," she said. "It's inevitable. . . . And it's right around the corner."

The route of the roadway north of Alderman will not be a topic of discussion on Tuesday, Wicks said. The course was set by the county years ago, he said.

"I share their concerns," Wicks said of the Fox Chase residents who will be separated from their pool and clubhouse. "But there's not really much we can do about it."

Ultimately, he said, he hopes residents view the road as creating more convenience and helping to alleviate congestion on U.S. 19. The portion of Belcher south of Alderman is projected to carry as many as 36,000 cars and trucks a day by 2020.

The extension was already under construction when Kris Gaetz, 30, moved into his house on Bonnie Avenue in December. So there were no surprises for him.

"From what I hear, it's supposed to increase the value of our houses," said Gaetz, whose home is one lot removed from Belcher.

Why? Better access, he said. Before the Belcher Road extension opened, it was difficult to navigate the snaking roadways to his home.

"As far as I'm concerned, it seems like a good idea," he said.

But Wenslow said he misses the days when pizza delivery people had a hard time finding his home. He reminisces about the days when the wide undeveloped tract next to his house was a good place to hit golf balls.

"This used to be wonderful out here," he said as he walked onto his back patio, which now overlooks a busy four-lane highway.

Mrs. Wenslow said the loss of privacy hit her as she let her dog out Friday morning and saw a stream of cars passing close by. They plan to erect a wooden fence.

"For 15 years," she said, "we had a private, quiet spot. Now it's just the opposite."

_ Robert Farley can be reached at 445-4185 or