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Whoa! State postpones controversial toll road through horse farms

One of many protest signs around horse country in Ocala where there several proposed routes of the Coastal Connector highway would slice up farms in Marion County. The state said late Friday it is now postponing the project. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
One of many protest signs around horse country in Ocala where there several proposed routes of the Coastal Connector highway would slice up farms in Marion County. The state said late Friday it is now postponing the project. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Jun. 29, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott's office announced late Friday that it is postponing any further work on a controversial toll road called the Coastal Connector that upset horse farmers in the Ocala area.

The announcement was made in a letter from Department of Transportation Secretary Mike Dew, dated Friday, to Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn saying that the state will put the Coastal Connector on the back burner, and instead focus on easing traffic problems on Interstate 75.

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

The governor's office released the letter to the Tampa Bay Times in response to a request earlier that day for comment on a story the newspaper had just posted online about the Coastal Connector controversy.

"This letter articulates where the Administration stands on this issue," Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said in the 7 p.m. email.

In the past month, both the Marion County Commission and the Citrus County Commission have passed resolutions calling for the DOT 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.

Two years ago a committee of local leaders set up by the DOT to study routes for a new highway through rural areas of Marion, Levy and Alachua counties to alleviate traffic on I-75 recommended against building any of them. Instead, the committee told the DOT to focus on fixing I-75's problems first.

Rather than do that, the DOT recently unveiled several proposed routes for the Coastal Connector, a toll road to alleviate traffic on I-75. But the highway would slice through the region around Ocala known as the "Horse Capital of the World."

The owners of stables and breeding farms in that area banded together to fight it, drawing support from local and state officials, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The Coastal Connector 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. Yet he banded with his liberal neighbors to create an organization called "the No Coastal Connector Group."

McLean, who feared the road could cost him 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."

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

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