Commissioners' attempt to expedite I-75 interchange in Estates meets some resistance

Should there be an I-75 interchange at Everglades Boulevard?

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A sign advising caution because of panther habitat is posted south of the Everglades Boulevard overpass at I-75 in Picayune Strand. If an interchange for I-75 and Everglades Boulevard is built, environmentalists have expressed concerns about cutting off travel routes for endangered Florida panthers and violating the intent of an Everglades restoration project in Picayune Strand south of I-75. Lexey Swall/Staff

Photo by LEXEY SWALL

A sign advising caution because of panther habitat is posted south of the Everglades Boulevard overpass at I-75 in Picayune Strand. If an interchange for I-75 and Everglades Boulevard is built, environmentalists have expressed concerns about cutting off travel routes for endangered Florida panthers and violating the intent of an Everglades restoration project in Picayune Strand south of I-75. Lexey Swall/Staff

Video from NBC-2

— Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta recruited members Thursday night to a working group to try to accelerate the schedule for completing a new Interstate 75 interchange in Golden Gate Estates in 2020.

“I think there’s every reason to expedite it,” Coletta said. “It’s been too long already.”

About 30 people attended what was billed as a strategy meeting to discuss the long-sought interchange at Everglades Boulevard.

Before it even began, though, the meeting at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences building on Immokalee Road had a political edge.

Outside the meeting, Golden Gate Estates Civic Association secretary Tim Nance handed out an eight-page report arguing for building the interchange further east to handle future growth and having large rural landowners foot the bill.

Headlined “Let’s Get This One Right,” the flier warned against forcing traffic to the interchange through “rural-residential” Golden Gate Estates.

Jackson Laboratory opponent Duane Billington handed out a flier alleging a connection with the interchange and the county’s efforts to lure the genetics research institute to eastern Collier County and taking Coletta to task for his support.

Inside the meeting, Coletta challenged the handouts as inaccurate and politically motivated and asked anybody who didn’t favor the Everglades Boulevard interchange to leave the meeting.

“I’m not going to have my meeting hijacked for political purposes,” Coletta said.

Coletta went around the room, asking people to introduce themselves and state their opinion on the interchange.

Supporters of the project say it is needed for better access and a quicker escape route from disasters like floods and wildfires.

“We really are, in a time of crisis, kind of stuck,” Golden Gate Estates resident George Schneider said.

Concerns from conservation groups and state and federal review agencies about its effect on endangered species, like the Florida panther, have tied up the project.

No conservation groups sent representatives to Thursday’s meeting, and Coletta suggested interchange backers join the groups to try to influence the groups’ position.

Coletta didn’t say when he would decide who he would put on the interchange working group or when it would begin meeting.

He said Estate Civic Association members would not be excluded from the group but that he would not put anyone on the group who would try to sink the project.

“We have to keep going forward,” Coletta told the group. “We’ll get there.”

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