Smith requests $2 million for road


Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 24, 2005 at 11:28 p.m.
State Sen. Rod Smith has requested $2 million for widening SW 24th Avenue to four lanes, and developer Clark Butler wants to use that money as part of his share of $4.7 million he would owe Alachua County for the project.
The Alachua County Commission may discuss the proposal at today's meeting as an update on the project.
"(Butler) has to come up with $4.7 million or we don't proceed," said County Manager Randy Reid. "He met with the senator, and I have confirmed with the senator's staff that he has filed an appropriation for $2 million."
Neither Smith, D-Alachua, nor an aide could be reached for comment on the matter Monday.
Bob Reller, development director for Butler Enterprises, said negotiations with the county for four-laning will continue. Butler wants the road four-laned so he can create a new shopping plaza.
Butler would have to find the $2 million from some other source if the money is not appropriated, Reller said.
"The county wants Mr. Butler to come up with $4.7 million. We expect to have an agreement, I hope, sometime next month that will specify those terms," Reller said. "(Butler) would either have to guarantee those monies or find them someplace else."
The request for state money follows an unexpected federal $3 million appropriation for four-laning. Butler lobbied federal lawmakers for it, but the money was not sought by the county.
However, commissioners reconsidered in light of the $3 million and voted to negotiate with Butler for four lanes. The abrupt about-face drew flak from some residents. They said the switch was made without public involvement.
Some are concerned about Smith's budgetary request for the coming legislative session.
"Anybody looking at this argument would say, 'What's the big deal about four-laning a road?' but it's really about a development that will have regional impact," said Jon Reiskind, who was among several residents who met with Smith last week. "It looks like it's being approved indirectly through a modest change of design in a road, but it has enormous consequences.
"I'm not ready to accuse anybody of impropriety, but when they leave the public out of the process, it raises flags."
Commissioners last summer opted to pave SW 24th Avenue - which is now limerocked - as a two-lane road. It had earlier considered four-laning but dropped that plan when negotiations with Butler for paying part of the cost stalled. Butler last offered $2.7 million.
Two-laning is in line with a student village concept recommended by residents in a 1997 planning process called a charette.
Commissioners reconsidered their decision and voted 3-2 to negotiate to four-lane it when the $3 million came through. Dissenting were commissioners Mike Byerly and Rodney Long.
Commissioners said Butler must pay the cost difference for the added lanes. It is estimated at $4.7 million, the difference between the $9.4 million for two lanes and $14.1 million for four lanes.
The commission did not ask that a $2 million budget request be made. Commission Chairman Cynthia Chestnut said she has thanked Smith for asking for the $2 million, but had not discussed the matter with him before he made the request.
Questions have been raised about Butler's friendships with Chestnut and Smith.
Chestnut last year paid a $750 fine to settle a complaint with the state Ethics Commission. The commission found probable cause that she violated state law when accepting a ticket valued at $171 from Butler for a University of Florida fund-raiser.
Chestnut said at the time that she accepted the commission's decision, adding that she accepted the ticket based on the best information she had at the time. Last year, Butler loaned his yacht to Smith's wife and daughter for a weekend party for the bridesmaids in his daughter's wedding.
Smith said he did not see a problem with his wife and daughter having a wedding event on the yacht of a family friend.
Cindy Swirko can be reached at (352) 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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