FROM THE BLOGS
NAPLES — Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta rallied support Thursday night for county plans to build a new interchange at Everglades Boulevard.
More than 250 people turned out on a rainy night at Palmetto Elementary School in Golden Gate Estates, up the road from the proposed interchange site.
The project, which has been talked about for years, has been slowed by concerns by state and federal agencies and conservation groups about how it would affect protected wildlife species, including the endangered Florida panther.
Supporters of the interchange say it’s needed to provide a quicker route to escape wildfires or hurricanes and to get to the urban area closer to the coast.
“Mind you, you’ve got to meet the environmental needs, but what about the health, safety and welfare of the people who live out there?” Coletta said to applause.
Coletta urged the crowd to leave comment cards in support of the interchange and leave their e-mail addresses so he could organize a “working group” to counter interchange opponents.
“I can push this thing just so far by myself, so are you with me?” Coletta said, again to cheers.
Coletta wasn’t the only political figure doing the rallying Thursday night.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represented part of Collier County until he was elected in a new district Tuesday, told the crowd that the interchange project is a “no-brainer” that helps people and helps the environment.
“If there’s ever been a project more meritorious, darn it, I’d like to see one more meritorious than this one,” Diaz-Balart said.
The Florida Department of Transportation has embarked on a study of how changes within a 25-mile radius from the proposed interchange will affect eight protected wildlife species and how the effects could be offset. The study is set to wrap up by the end of 2011.
State Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, asked whether the crowd saw humans on the list of species to be studied.
“As far as I’m concerned you’re the ones paying the taxes, they’re your property rights and by God, you have a right to be safe on your property,” Hudson said.
While most of the crowd supported the interchange, lone voices could be heard shouting back against the plans.
Brian Rucker was not one them. He said the interchange is needed for wildfire evacuation. He said he was not in harm’s way when a wildfire erupted this summer, but he was stranded at his home when officials shut down Everglades Boulevard.
“We basically have one way in and one way out,” said Rucker, 38.
Estates resident Laz Diaz, 48, said he had mixed feelings about the plans. He said his family moved from the Miami area nine years ago to escape city life.
“It’s the beginning of the Estates becoming another Naples, meaning becoming the city,” said Diaz.
An interchange would have an up side for Diaz’s family though.
“Going to Grandma’s house (back in the Miami area), it would cut out about an hour,” he said.