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Marion County's horse farm owners say 'Whoa!' to proposed toll road

JIM DAMASKE | Times Polly Benson's horse "Lake of the Isles" grazes in the rain at her Firefly Farm. One of the proposed routes of the Coastal Connector highway proposal would take the road in front of her farm bringing noise and devaluing her property. - Marion County residents are in opposition to the Coastal Connector highway proposal. There are several different routes being proposed that cut through the county's horse farms west of I75. One route would cut the 5500 acre Live Oak Plantation in half. as well as take a chunk off of it's neighbor the 750 acre Kinsman Farm. Many of the areaÃ\u0095s smaller private farms will be affected as well.
Published Jun. 29, 2018

Drive through the rolling hills of Marion County and it's hard to miss why the official slogan is "Horse Capital of the World."

The Florida Department of Transportation wants to build a new toll road called the Coastal Connector right through the heart of it. All five proposed routes would slice through some of those bright green pastures to connect the Suncoast Parkway with Interstate 75.

News of the Coastal Connector's proposed routes has fired up horse farm owners to fight back. They are drawing support from local and state politicians, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who told the FDOT that "it is imperative we find another path."

For once, horses may beat cars.

In the past month, both the Marion County Commission and the Citrus County Commission have passed resolutions calling for the FDOT to say whoa. Marion officials don't even want the state agency to continue studying any of the routes through that region, much less begin construction.

The Coastal Connector has made allies of people who might normally be enemies. Timothy McLean, who lives in the Pine Ridge community in Citrus County, counts himself a proud Trump supporter who voted for Gov. Rick Scott twice. Now he's banded with his liberal neighbors to create an organization called "the No Coastal Connector Group."

McLean, who fears losing his entire 10-acre parcel, went to a recent Republican Party event to pass along documents about the road to Scott, an avid supporter of toll roads. He said Scott listened to his complaints about the Coastal Connector and then said, "I've heard nothing good about that road."

FDOT officials asked the Tampa Bay Times to submit questions about the project by email. They had not responded to the questions four days later.

• • •

Before the $507-million Suncoast Parkway was built nearly two decades ago, experts hired by the FDOT predicted the toll road running from northern Hillsborough to Hernando County would be such a big success that it would make $150 million by 2014.

But when 2014 rolled around, the 42-mile highway was so empty that it collected a mere $22 million. It has yet to meet the original projections.

Despite the lack of demand, the FDOT recently started building a $134-million extension called Suncoast 2. The new road would stretch 13 miles, from the end of the Suncoast 1 at U.S. 98 north for 13 miles to State Road 44 in Lecanto. Critics have dubbed it "the road to nowhere."

Regional planning officials say it's unlikely to attract as many drivers as Suncoast 1, given its remoteness from Tampa Bay's populated areas. They have said the only way for Suncoast 2 to make money is to find a way to connect it to a larger highway such as I-75. Construction on Suncoast 2 stopped last month after a judge issued a temporary injunction. Opponents had sued because an environmental analysis failed to consider the impact of joining Suncoast 2 to the Coastal Connector.

Two years ago, a committee that FDOT created called the I-75 Relief Task Force reviewed the idea of alleviating traffic on the interstate, particularly during hurricanes, by building another high-speed roadway through rural parts of Alachua, Levy and Marion counties.

Those counties all opposed the idea, and the committee ultimately rejected building a new highway. Instead, they called for the FDOT to work on I-75 first.

In Marion County's resolution opposing the Coastal Connector, county officials noted that the routes the I-75 Relief Task Force rejected are now showing up as Coastal Connector options.

While there is no firm timeline to start construction, work would begin some time after the projected completion of Suncoast 2 in 2022.

•••

Some Citrus County residents who oppose the road are battling it because they also opposed the Suncoast 2, which will run through the Withlacoochee State Forest and obliterate what's left of Etna, a former turpentine camp listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In Marion County, the opposition is mostly from people who are horrified at the impact the Coastal Connector would have on their way of life. They don't oppose the road so much as the routes.

The region is home to Florida's $2.6 billion equine industry. It has produced two horse racing's Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Affirmed.

"When the Coastal Connector was announced … we all woke up and were shocked to learn the FDOT had planned a toll road right through the heart of Marion's horse community," said Bernard Little, who with his wife owns a 550-acre farm called Horsefeathers. "It would devastate the equine industry."

The industry thrives around Ocala because of the geology there, he explained. The soil is just right to produce grass that's optimal for race horses to eat, while the geology produces just the right mineral combination for the water they drink.

Residents here recoil from the idea of legions of cars invading their piece and quiet and the likelihood of environmental harm that would come from polluted runoff and tailpipe fumes.

Little is now president of a group called "Horse Farms Forever" that's already met with FDOT Secretary Mike Dew. He said Dew seemed "very receptive" but didn't commit to anything.

FDOT officials who were supposed to talk about the Coastal Connector failed to show up for the June meeting of the Hernando County Metropolitan Planning Organization. Local officials on the MPO said they couldn't figure out the purpose of the Coastal Connector. If it's supposed to help with hurricane evacuation, as most new Florida highways are supposed to do, why would it dump people out in an area of I-75 that's already congested?

"We are exacerbating the problem," said Inverness City Councilman Cabot McBride. "I haven't come across anybody who likes this at all."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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