For a decade, environmentalists have fought to kill the western beltway, a toll road that would complete a loop around I-4 and, hopefully, ease that artery's congestion. But the road would also run straight through the 100,000-acre Wekiva River Protection Area, the fragile, state-protected ecosystem that covers parts of Orange, Seminole and Lake counties. The road and its traffic would harass the Wekiva's black bear population and would open up the yet-undeveloped land around the river to the same unmitigated sprawl that plagues the rest of Central Florida. In 1994, and again in 1999, environmental activists thought they'd killed the idea for good. But the plan just won't stay dead.
"It doesn't matter how many studies show the road isn't feasible," says Defenders of Wildlife activist Jennifer McMurtray. "It's like a vampire, and we haven't found that wooden stake."
Politicians in love with road-building just don't give up. Even after Lake County commissioners rejected an agreement with the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority last year, effectively telling the authority they didn't want the road through their still-rural county, elected officials didn't quit. A month after Lake County gave the thumbs-down, Rep. Ric Keller and Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty lent their considerable weight to the project, giving it a renewed sense of urgency.
Then, during this year's legislative session, several of the state's environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Audubon of Florida, coalesced to oppose a law giving the Florida State Turnpike Authority carte blanche to build toll roads. When the law passed, the groups realized they were fighting a brick wall.
So environmentalists abandoned their no-beltway stance. The loop is a reality; two-thirds of it is already finished, and the next advancement, which runs through the Wekiva basin, will soon follow. Now they want to minimize damage.
In July, the Sierra Club and Audubon of Florida lobbied Gov. Jeb Bush to form the Wekiva Basin Area Task Force, which is charged with creating an environmentally friendly solution to the beltway by Jan. 15, 2003. That's when a report on how to build an economically feasible and environmentally sensitive road will be issued ahead of the 2003 legislative session. By cobbling together 16 environmentalists, businessmen, tricounty leaders and state officials, Bush hoped to forge a compromise.
What remains to be seen is how real the state's commitment to the Wekiva is. Bush snubbed two of the most informed Wekiva activists: McMurtray and Sierra Club member Keith Schue, who quit his job at Siemens last year to work full time on Wekiva issues. The governor also delayed making his appointments to the task force for so long that the group will only have time for three meetings before it must report its findings. So far, Bush has refused to push back the Jan. 15 deadline.
It's too early to tell whether or not the governor is merely paying lip service to environmentalist's concerns. Since the road is inevitable, the state hardly needs environmentalists' permission to build.
"The key now is whether all the parties can come together," says Steve Pustelnyk of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority. "A no-growth position isn't going to get us anywhere. Transportation improvements are inevitable."
The most circulated proposal is to widen State Road 46 (which hooks up with I-4 in northwest Seminole County) and link it to a new expressway that would pick up where State Road 429 ends in Apopka and continue east through the Wekiva protection zone.
But widening State Road 46 is a big problem. According to Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's senior vice president, the two-lane road is already "the most intensive wildlife-killing road in the state." Eighty-one black bears died from 1981 to 1999 along State Road 46, and that number increases each year as traffic gets worse. If the highway grows to four lanes, so will the death toll.
Lee and other activists want to replace that same stretch of State Road 46 with an elevated highway that allows for bears to pass underneath.
They also want wetlands mitigation property to stay in the Wekiva basin. And they want state and local governments to buy any remaining land and development rights to properties adjacent to the Wekiva River Protection Area, forever shielding the lands from becoming tract housing or strip malls. Those lands, after all, are the areas of recharge that feed the Wekiva River's springs. If they're paved over, the river will dry up.
To keep sprawl to a minimum, the environmentalists want a beltway with just one entrance and one exit. Anything more only encourages unchecked development.
But how likely is the state to go along with the environmentalists' demands? Not very. The idea of elevating State Road 46 seems particularly far-fetched because it would likely double the project's roughly calculated $100 million price tag. And according to Pustelnyk, buying the Wekiva's recharge lands would mean buying almost all the land between the Wekiva River Protection Area and Clermont, an unlikely prospect. Having a beltway with no interchanges is similarly unrealistic.
"[Environmentalists' concerns] will be considered," says Sonny Timmerman, director of community planning for the Florida Department of Community Affairs. Timmerman, who also serves as the staff support for the Wekiva Basin Area Task Force, says that even the expensive notion of elevating State Road 46 is on the table because it accomplishes two of the task force's main goals -- discouraging growth and reducing bear deaths.
The talks will become more specific at the task force's next meeting, Nov. 25 and 26 in Maitland (www.dca.state.fl.us). Until then, conservationists are left to wonder if the state will treat the Wekiva basin with the respect that the endangered ecosystem deserves.
"What I'm hearing -- it's not being treated any differently," says activist McMurtray. "They're ensuring this place is going to develop. They're making all the same mistakes we've made everywhere else."
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