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  1. Transportation

Public hearing set for Thursday on extension of Suncoast Parkway into Citrus County

Any week now, Kathy Faye Chetoka expects to get a notice from the state telling her that her wooded, rural property and home in Citrus County are smack in the middle of the preferred corridor for Phase 2 of the Suncoast Parkway.

She and her husband, Martin, bought the Homosassa site in 1994 for its acres of oaks and pines, for its seclusion and for the peace they sought after living in congested Pinellas County.

"We thought we'd gotten far enough away,'' Chetoka said.

For Chetoka and others in the path of the extension of the Suncoast Parkway, word in 2009 that the project had been put on hold was good news. The stagnant economy and other road needs kept it largely in mothballs until a few months ago, when Gov. Rick Scott put the parkway extension back on track.

That is good news to Josh Wooten, chief executive officer of the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce. For Citrus County, hit hard economically by the housing market bust and Duke Energy's closure of the Crystal River nuclear power plant, the parkway extension is an omen of better days, Wooten said.

"With the construction of the Suncoast 2, along with Duke's plans to construct a $1.5 billion gas plant, both breaking ground in 2016, we see an economic resurgence coming here,'' he said.

Florida Turnpike Enterprise is pressing ahead with the first half of what is known as Suncoast Parkway 2, the plan to extend the roadway, which now ends at U.S. 98 just south of the Hernando-Citrus county line, 13 miles north to State Road 44 in Lecanto. Construction is scheduled to begin in fiscal year 2016, with completion and opening in 2019.

The five-year budget for all phases of the project totals $256.7 million.

Under the current plan, the remainder of Suncoast Parkway 2 would take the road north and west to connect with U.S. 19 at Red Level, north of Crystal River.

Or would it?

The last stretch is not funded, and many speculate that the state discussion of a future road running from Tampa to Jacksonville could include the parkway, taking the road to the northeast, toward Interstate 75.

But Crista Deason, Turnpike Enterprise spokeswoman, said, "I'm not going to fuel the speculation. … We're concentrating on the Suncoast Parkway 2.''

Citrus County business leaders and county commissioners have been supportive of the parkway extension and the economic boost it would bring. But strong opposition from some residents has continued for two decades.

On Thursday, all perspectives are likely to be aired as Florida Turnpike Enterprise conducts a public hearing at Curtis Peterson Auditorium at Lecanto High School. Beginning at 5 p.m., the public can see maps and other documents related to the project. A formal presentation about the project begins at 6 p.m., with public input to follow. For those with questions, answers will be provided in writing sometime after the hearing, Deason said.

Construction of the roadway would be done in two sections, but the sections would be built simultaneously. One would be from U.S. 98 to Cardinal Lane; the other from Cardinal Lane to SR 44. An exit from the parkway would be at Cardinal Lane. The recreational trail planned to parallel the Citrus County section of the parkway would be built at the same time, Deason said.

Wooten, the Citrus chamber executive, said the parkway extension would bring "an economic benefit to our county through increased property values, connectivity to and from the Tampa Bay area, a greater ability to ship goods in and out of Citrus, greater mobility for a regional workforce, as well as attract investment and quality development.''

It also would help with congestion on U.S. 19 and "provide easier access for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who have and will discover Citrus County's unique natural resources," he said.

Opponents of the expansion raise a litany of issues, including concerns about cutting through the Withlacoochee State Forest; destruction of the Etna Turpentine Camp, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and fears about noise in communities such as Sugarmill Woods and Lecanto Acres/Lecanto Hills Mobile Home Park.

"There is no reason for this road," Chetoka said. "They haven't got the money or the traffic to continue it up to Inglis.''

The road would actually draw people away from traveling through Crystal River and Inverness, where they might stop to do business, said John Wade, president of the Citrus County Council, a coalition of homeowners groups.

"What does this actually do for the citizens of Citrus County?'' Wade asked. "This is not a toll road for Citrus County. This is a toll road for relief on (Interstate) 75 for people to pass through.''

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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