COLLIER COUNTY — Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta’s call for a show of support for a new Interstate 75 interchange in Golden Gate Estates did not materialize Thursday night, but the move is drawing fire behind the scenes.
Some 40 people attended a meeting at the Golden Gate Community Center where Collier County presented a draft Master Mobility Plan to keep cars off local roads and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes.
The planning effort, which kicked off earlier this year, has been criticized by environmental groups for including a proposed new I-75 interchange at Everglades Boulevard, a project that has run into resistance among state and federal wildlife agencies worried that it will ruin habitat for the endangered Florida panther.
Coletta, a champion of the interchange proposal, sparked criticism from political opponents Wednesday when his office sent emails to more than 200 people urging them to turn out for Thursday’s meeting to counterbalance environmental groups.
“With your assistance we can try to show the Collier County government and the state and federal agencies how passionately we feel about the construction of the I75-Everglades Boulevard interchange,” the email said.
The email raised eyebrows among leaders of the Golden Gate Estates Civic Association and prompted emails of complaint from the group’s president Peter Gaddy to County Manager Leo Ochs and county commissioners.
Gaddy wrote that turning a meeting about the Master Mobility Plan, which is funded by federal stimulus money from the Department of Energy, into a political rally for interchange supporters runs counter to the federal grant requirements and is “highly inappropriate.”
“I have always worried that special interests would hijack the Mobility Plan, this now appears to be the case,” Gaddy wrote.
He asked Ochs for a copy of all the so-called “Dear Citizen” emails Coletta’s office sent Wednesday and a list of recipients.
In another email to commissioners, Gaddy said Coletta is overstepping his bounds in pushing for the interchange by scheduling a presentation to the Marco City Council, running afoul of an agreement to bring the presentation to commissioners first.
Coletta said he has not scheduled a presentation to the Marco City Council, but plans to attend a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting in Naples in September to discuss the agency’s concerns about panther habitat.
He said he is no longer planning to use county staff time for the presentations, the basis of the earlier agreement with commissioners.
“I’m totally within the framework of what the commissioners were talking about,” Coletta said.
Coletta said leaders of the Estates Civic Association are using tangential issues to try to disparage his push for the interchange and said he is disappointed with Gaddy.
“He’s trying to enter politics into a very, very serious situation in the Estates,” Coletta said.
Gaddy is allied with retired agribusiness manager and Estates Civic Association Secretary Tim Nance, who is running for Coletta’s seat. The two face each other in the Republican primary next August.
On Thursday, the interchange got only a fleeting indirect reference when Deputy Growth Management Administrator Nick Casalanguida told the crowd that the meeting was not about any one capital project.
In his email, Coletta asked interchange supporters to contact the Daily News with their position if they couldn’t attend the meeting. The Daily News has received two emails from interchange supporters, saying the project is needed to improve emergency access to the Estates.
At Thursday’s meeting, Golden Gate Estates resident Antonio Quevedo, 47, said the county has the right idea trying to find ways to alleviate road congestion like he finds on Golden Gate Boulevard every morning. He said the interchange should be part of that effort.
“That’s something to me that’s a no brainer,” he said.
The interchange was not on Naples resident Randy Stewart’s mind as he studied handouts and posters along the walls of the community center auditorium
Stewart, 46, praised the county for looking for ways to make it easier to get around without getting into a car.
“I’d rather take my bike or walk,” Stewart said.