Coletta calls for environmental groups to work with I-75 interchange proponents

A 180-degree panoramic view of the northeast corner of the Everglades Boulevard overpass at I-75. This photo was taken using a panoramic program on an iPhone 4 by staff photographer Lexey Swall. It is pieced together from several photos taken in sequence.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL // Buy this photo

A 180-degree panoramic view of the northeast corner of the Everglades Boulevard overpass at I-75. This photo was taken using a panoramic program on an iPhone 4 by staff photographer Lexey Swall. It is pieced together from several photos taken in sequence.

Jim Coletta, Collier County Commissioner, District 5 on NewsMakers 6-26-11

Jim Coletta, Collier County Commissioner, District 5 on NewsMakers 6-26-11

Nancy Payton of Florida Wildlife Federation on NewsMakers

Nancy Payton of Florida Wildlife Federation on NewsMakers

Video from NBC-2

— Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta asked environmental groups Wednesday to come to the table to discuss ways to offset environmental effects of a proposed Interstate 75 interchange in Golden Gate Estates.

The remarks came during an at-times testy debate sponsored by the Homeowners Association of Golden Gate Estates at the University of Florida agricultural extension office on Immokalee Road.

“I want to work with you in the worst way,” Coletta told Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton, who was representing interchange opponents in the debate.

Payton said environmental groups are willing to discuss mitigation but not if the prerequisite is that they support the interchange project.

“It’s hard to come and sit around the table when your position is not respected,” she told Coletta.

The exchange came after a flare up between Coletta and Payton over his remarks that conservation groups were costing taxpayers money with unnecessary studies.

Payton jumped out of her seat, jabbing a finger toward Coletta and accusing him of ambushing her.

“I don’t appreciate what you’ve done,” she said.

Coletta apologized, and Payton accepted his apology. Coletta told the crowd of mostly Estates residents that it shouldn’t shrug off environmental groups’ concerns.

“If you think you’re going to be able to go around the back side and make something happen without the environmental community having a role in it, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Environmental concerns have bogged down federal and state review of the interchange project, which is now undergoing an analysis of how the interchange and wider Estates roads to access it would effect habitat for endangered species like the Florida panther and woodstorks.

Project planners are considering locations at Everglades Boulevard, Desoto Boulevard and at a future planned road to the proposed town of Big Cypress east of the Estates.

Interchange proponent Norm Trebilcock said the new interchange could spur preservation that would not happen otherwise.

“Road projects can actually be a friend of the environment,” Trebilcock said.

He suggested one way to offset the effect of the interchange on panther travel routes could be to add wildlife crossings under the interstate west of where they stop now and beneath Desoto or Everglades boulevards.

Payton said wildlife crossings will not help Florida panthers if the crossings are not connecting usable panther habitat and pointed out increasing conflicts between Estates residents and panthers.

“They don’t live in underpasses,” she said. “You need habitat.”

The debate had a tinge of politics: Bob Raines, the president of the Homeowners Association of Golden Gate Estates, also is a co-coordinator of Coletta’s re-election campaign.

Raines did not participate in the event, citing his dual role, and handed over the microphone to Daily News columnist Brent Batten to moderate the debate.

Earlier this week, Coletta sent out a county press release to encourage Estates residents to join the homeowners association and attend the event to show support for the interchange.

County Commission candidate Tim Nance, who is running for Coletta’s seat, said before Wednesday’s debate that backers of the interchange should stop bickering with environmental groups and start working with them to resolve differences over the project.

He pointed to a recent resolution by the Everglades Coalition, an umbrella group of more than 50 organizations, to oppose the interchange.

“I think it’s going in the wrong direction,” Nance said.

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