ST. PETERSBURG — About 100 people attended a protest Tuesday evening in Williams Park against two bills they said would do great damage to Florida's environment.
Citizens, politicians and environmentalists urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto one bill that would build a toll road to Georgia and another that they say would make it more difficult for people to challenge development decisions in court. Some wore animal masks — foxes, owls and badgers dotted the crowd — while others waived neon signs with phrases like, "Don't pave me, bro" and "Animals don't walk on toll roads."
Florida Senate President Bill Galvano unveiled his toll road plans in January, pushing a massive expansion of the Suncoast Parkway through the Senate. The bill now sits on the governor's desk, awaiting his signature.
Galvano said building the roads through the state's rural, environmentally sensitive areas could boost the economy of small towns.
But leaders in several of the counties in the path of the extended Suncoast Parkway have made it clear they want no toll roads slicing through and destroying farms that have been in the same families for generations.
Environmental groups also have opposed the project, condemning it as a way to spread sprawl and destroy areas important to recharging the aquifer and providing habitat for imperiled species.
State Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, voted against the bill and spoke at Tuesday's rally. He acknowledged that more people are moving to Florida and the state faces significant transportation issues, but said this project fails to address the real issues: congestion within urban communities.
"I recognize that our state is growing, but come on," Diamond said. "This bill proposes all the wrong solutions to our problems."
Several in the crowd said they attended the downtown rally because of their love for hiking, wildlife and Florida's natural areas. Some brought their children so they could see a peaceful protest to protect the environment.
Helaina Adams, 11, goes hiking with her mom and wants to make sure Florida's wildlife is protected for generations to come. She said she's concerned that this project, which "is more than just a road" would tear down hundreds of miles of habitats and threaten the Florida panther and other species.
Alan Brand, 58, of Dunedin criticized politicians for supporting the two bills and urged DeSantis to follow through on his campaign promises and protect the environment.
"They're laying down Florida at the altar of the automobile," Brand said. "This is just a high visibility example of back-room dirty dealings."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.