County Commission blasted for 4-lane vote

Speakers were angered by the commission's reversal of its previous position.

Published: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 1:05 a.m.

Withering attacks that the Alachua County Commission is subverting the democratic process by proposing to four-lane SW 24th Avenue were leveled by nearly 20 speakers at Tuesday's commission meeting.

"Political prostitution." "Dark side of democracy." "Unconscionable act." "Travesty." Those were a few of the phrases hurled at commissioners.

Invective was also shot at Gainesville developer Clark Butler, who has lobbied the commissioners and state and federal legislators for four-laning and for money for the project.

"We want you to serve all of the people equally well," resident Sally Dickinson said. "In this case a single individual, for his personal gain, leaped over the steps our community has in place for decision-making. But the truly frightening action was yours. Your vote was an unconscionable and dangerous act that ensures public apathy and cynicism."

Her husband, Josh Dickinson, said Butler can coin a new motto: "My way and the highway."

The three commissioners who voted to negotiate with Butler for four-laning - Cynthia Chestnut, Lee Pinkoson and Paula DeLaney - later said they do not plan to reconsider.

DeLaney added that a four-lane road is not a foregone conclusion. The planning process could kill it. So could failing to get adequate concessions from Butler over right-of-way acquisition and other matters.

"There is a huge, long process that involves contracts and comprehensive plan changes. This is not something that happens overnight," DeLaney said. "If the contractual agreement was not satisfied, I guess we would be back looking at it again."

Particularly singled out by the crowd was Chestnut, who last year paid a $700 fine to the state Ethics Commission to settle a case filed against her involving Butler. Chestnut had accepted a ticket valued at $171 for a UF fund-raiser from Butler and sat at his table.

The complaint was filed by Charles Grapski, who reminded Chestnut of the case Tuesday. Others did, as well.

"Last year one member of the County Commission was fined for an ethical breach involving the very person who may benefit from the lane changes," Julia Reiskind said. "At the time, she claimed to have learned from that experience. Considering that history, I'm surprised she did not recuse herself from voting on this. I urge her to request a re-vote and then honorably refuse to vote on the matter."

Chestunt has said in the past that the gift from Butler didn't affect her vote.

The debate over the limerock SW 24th Avenue has been going on for years.

In 1997 a planning process called a charette was used to map out future growth in the vicinity. Residents decided the area is best suited as a student village of housing and shops because of its proximity to the University of Florida. Included in that plan was a paved, two-lane SW 24th Avenue between 34th and 43rd streets.

Butler wants the road four-laned, saying he needs two extra lanes to build a new shopping plaza there.

Butler could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Bob Reller, development director for Butler Enterprises, said Butler has talked with the federal lawmakers about the project.

"That is his right," Reller said.

Commissioners have flip-flopped on the project in the past. Four-laning was considered until earlier negotiations with Butler broke down. Commissioners then opted to two-lane the road at an estimated cost of $9.1 million.

In November, the county learned it received a $3 million congressional appropriation for a four-lane road that it had not requested. A potential for $13 million in state and federal money exists.

The commission decided to reconsider. DeLaney had replaced Penny Wheat, who voted for two-laning, and she swung the project to four lanes.

A common theme of speakers centered on credibility. The commission lost the public's esteem and trust by hastily voting to change a plan that was reached by a consensus of residents who participated in the charette, speakers said.

Several noted that sales tax referendums lost in November in part because the public lacks trust in the commission. Others said the decision may hurt future planning efforts in which participation by residents is sought.

"A group of citizens planned and designed a two-lane road," Virginia Schrader said. "My worry is that the three commissioners who did not vote for what (the citizens) wanted challenges participatory democracy in Alachua County. You are catering to (Butler's) wishes over the wishes of ordinary concerned citizens."

Chestnut drew catcalls when she suggested delaying comment because the time set aside for it during commission meetings was nearing completion, but she allowed it to continue.

Several speakers said the four-laning will jack up county costs on the project, but Pinkoson denied that after the meeting. He said the county will require Butler to pay any difference in costs above what the county has budgeted and the state and federal money earmarked.

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