Environmental study for I-75/Everglades Blvd. interchange draws ire before it begins

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— The two sides were there Thursday night but mostly listening rather than squaring off over the hot topic of a proposed Interstate 75 interchange in Golden Gate Estates.

Some 40 people attended the public kickoff meeting for the Florida Department of Transportation’s environmental effects study of the proposed interchange at Everglades Boulevard.

The study, expected to take a year to complete, was prompted by numerous concerns state and federal environmental review agencies have raised about the road project, which is Collier County’s No. 1 priority for federal dollars.

“We’re doing the best we can to get everybody what they want,” DOT project manager Gwen Pipkin said.

The study will analyze how “past, present and reasonably foreseeable future changes” within 25 miles of the project will effect eight protected species from the Florida panther to the sandhill crane and how those impacts could be mitigated. That could include habitat preservation or restoration, wildlife crossings and fences, DOT says.

DOT spokeswoman Debbie Tower said the Collier County project is only the second time in Florida such a study has been used and the largest in terms of number of species studied.

“In that sense this is rather unique but we live in a beautiful and unique part of the state,” she said.

Commissioner Jim Coletta, whose district includes the Estates, said he is “suspicious” of the study, which he said is piling on more studies of a project for which residents have waited for 25 years and need for quicker evacuations from floods and wildfires.

He said the study is either an attempt to study it to death or sweeten the deal for environmental advocates who oppose the interchange.

“We need a certain amount of outcry from everyone and their brother to make sure everyone realizes this is still our top priority,” he said.

Collier County cites a recent $1 million congressional appropriation, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., as evidence of federal support for the interchange.

The county’s deputy growth management administrator Nick Casalanguida acknowledged frustration with the process.

He called the environment effects study an opportunity to look at all the details and “be transparent.” A lack of transparency about the county’s handling of the project, once talked about for the planned town of Big Cypress further east, has been a sore point with some Golden Gate Estates residents.

They fear how an interchange at Everglades Boulevard would effect the rural character of the Estates.

“I’m leery,” said Estates resident Carol Pratt, whose neighbors’ homes are in the path of the proposed extension of Vanderbilt Beach Road. “What we’re looking for is full disclosure, and we haven’t had that in the past.”

In comments submitted at Thursday’s meeting, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said getting permits for the interchange is “likely impossible.”

The group recommended instead that the county look at other solutions to the “legitimate transportation concerns that exist in the Estates,” including speeding up bridges over canals to connect more streets.

Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton questioned the way the study was being framed.

She questioned what land-use plans and population estimates would be used and said she wants to see the costs of mitigation laid out.

For more information about the environmental effects study visit www.I-75Everglades.com.

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