citrusparkdriveext0919

Citrus Park Drive Extension Becomes a Reality

It’s been, the old saying goes, a long road.

Yet in mid-July work on the long-postponed and long-delayed Citrus Park Drive extension began.

“We are pleased to see the Citrus Park Drive Extension project move forward as a vital east-west connection thus providing alternative travel choices,” said Lisa Silva of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). “This project went beyond a typical roadway design by accommodating all users; with the inclusion of a six-foot buffered bicycle lane, sidewalks in both directions, pedestrian and bicycling connectivity to adjacent neighborhoods, a tunnel to the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, and special attention to Deer Park Elementary.”

Silva, a West Park Village resident, added, “In the future, connecting north-south Montague Street would assist in completing the grid and provide additional traffic relief. A multi-modal network of travel options is consistent with the adopted Northwest Hillsborough Area Community Plan and the MPO’s Long Range Transportation Plan.”

The start of the road represented the culmination of hundreds of hours of Westchase lobbying, of volunteer work and county plan-tweaking aimed at addressing the concerns of the road’s opponents.

Because the Citrus Park Drive extension, as much as it helps Westchase and its surrounding communities, does have opponents. It greatly impacts the communities of Windsor Place and Mandolin and especially Fawn Ridge.

And they’re part of the story too.

Where is the extension going?

Citrus Park Drive passes in front of the Westfield Citrus Park mall. Heading west, it currently ends at Sheldon Road, where vehicles must turn either north or south. If you slid on some waders on and entered the woods here, you could walk through trees and wetlands, not spotting a home until you emerged with a handful of mosquito bites somewhere along Countryway Boulevard.

Just before Countryway Boulevard, Citrus Park Drive picks up again—a little spit of it, roughly two-thirds of a mile long. It sits off Countryway Boulevard immediately north of the Maureen Gauzza Library. From Countryway Boulevard this western-most portion of the road passes the entrances to Windsor Place Townhomes and the Mandolin neighborhoods before dead-ending at Deer Park Elementary. It’s a beautiful walking/jogging road, largely devoid of traffic most times of day.

If all goes according to the county’s contract with the project contractor Prince, a new 2.73 mile stretch of four-lane roadway—the Citrus Park Drive extension—will connect that peaceful dead-end outside of Deer Park Elementary School with the intersection of Sheldon and Citrus Park Drive, just outside Fawn Ridge, by June 2021. It will provide a much-needed alternative to the increasingly congested Linebaugh corridor and a very narrow, rural, two-lane South Mobley Road.

Yet getting to July’s start took twenty years.

Early History

According to early Westchase resident and former Westchase Community Association (WCA) President Bob Argus, who cofounded the now defunct Upper Tampa Bay (UTB) Alliance that originally lobbied for funding the road, the plans for the future construction of the Citrus Park Drive extension predate most Northwest communities. According to Argus, the extension appears on the earliest maps depicting Westchase’s development in the early 90s. “If you look at some of the original documents for the platting of Westchase, it indicates the Citrus Park Drive extension being originally built.”
It’s possible. Hillsborough County purchased the eastern-most part of the land through which the road will run in 1973 and the western parcel in 1987.

Silva, who began working for the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in 1999, said the Citrus Park Drive extension was on the earliest maps from her MPO tenure. “Definitely in the 1999 community plan, we were showing dotted lines showing the Citrus Park Drive extension.” Silva added, “It’s conceivable it appeared before that.”

When WOW asked Hillsborough County staff about the earliest map they could find indicating the proposed road, they located one dated 1984. On it the road is called the Gunn Highway extension.

A road plan, however, does not equate with county funding for the road. Two events conspired to fuel a Westchase effort to get the Citrus Park Drive extension funded by the county.

In March of 1999, the Citrus Park Mall opened on what was then a large cow pasture, soon after the widening of Sheldon Road and Gunn Highway to four lanes up through Sickles High School.

A half year prior, in the fall of 1998—just as groundbreaking for West Park Village began, the early Westchase Community Association Board, featuring residents like Argus, Hal Gastler, Bill Kemerer and Pam Prysner, learned of the MPO’s 20-year road plan. It contained a jarring proposal to widen Linebaugh Avenue to six lanes through Westchase.

Westchase rallied and protested in force, compelling the MPO to remove the widening of the road from that long-range plan. “We got together, made a plan, did the research and went down to the MPO hearing,” said Argus. “Around that time the UTB Alliance was founded and that organization sought representation from the communities surrounding Westchase and began organizing to get the Citrus Park Drive extension and some other stuff done.”

The reality that Westchase could lose its beautifully landscaped Linebaugh median, maintained by the Westchase Community Development District (CDD), caused Westchase residents to seek funding of the Citrus Park Drive extension to protect it.

“The reason we wanted to get this road done is they wanted to six-lane Linebaugh Avenue,” said then Fords resident Susan Edgerley, who co-founded the UTB Alliance with Argus. (Edgerley now lives in North Carolina.) “We thought there’s got to be another east-west connector to connect with Citrus Park.”

Beth Alden, the executive director of the MPO, confirmed that the extension was needed to protect Linebaugh’s long-term four-lane status. “One of the things we’ve heard from folks in Westchase,” she said, “is they like Linebaugh Avenue the way it is. They’d rather not see it widened.” She added, “The way you keep those roadways and trees…is by having a network of nice four lane roadways rather than one major road that has to get widened to six or eight lanes.”

Alden added that New Tampa’s Bruce B. Downs suffered an unfortunate fate because it lacked that network. “Bruce B. Downs used to be a pretty road but with all the planning for the New Tampa area and the way it was developed, it didn’t wind up having a parallel road or connected street network. Everyone who wants to get out of New Tampa has to use Bruce B. Downs and now it’s a monster of an eight-lane road.” Alden added, “And eight-lane roads are not very safe. They have some of the worst rates of severe crashes.”

The UTB Alliance spent the next four years, according Edgerley, lobbying for its funding. “We were at every county meeting and we were constantly begging them, emphasizing connectivity. We were lobbying not only for the Citrus Park Drive extension but for Montague [in The Bridges] to connect up north to it.”

Winning two allies on the county commission proved key to their success, Edgerley said. “We would start meeting with the county commissioners’ assistants and we met with Ken Hagan and Jim Norman. Their two offices were very helpful. I just tried to get as involved as possible.”

Yet the UTB Alliance, made up of residents from Westchase, The Eagles, Twin Branch Acres, Fawn Lake and others, had some key allies. A few months prior, a newcomer arrived in West Park Village. Brian Ross, the former president of Hunters Green HOA in New Tampa, moved to the community. During his tenure on the New Tampa HOA, Ross had been named to the Citizens Advisory Committee of the MPO, which offers regional transportation studies and whose road and transit plans serve as guides for the Hillsborough County Commission.

“From the get go I was in favor of the construction of the Citrus Park Drive extension. It was on the books. It made a lot of sense. It needed to be built to provide some relief to Westchase and the folks in Northwest Hillsborough County,” Ross stated.

For Ross, there was an added safety reason. “During hurricanes we would have another exit route for the residents of Westchase.”

Ross was soon elected to the Westchase Community Association (WCA), where he continued his advocacy for the extension and got the weight of the association behind the effort.

“I believe I had the WCA adopt one or two resolutions in support of it. I thought my support for it on the CAC was consistent with what the Westchase residents wanted.”

Recalling the time period, Ross recalled, “I attended a boatload of meetings.”

Meanwhile Linebaugh traffic continued to grow with the Northwest housing construction boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. Then Pinellas County finished Forest Lakes Boulevard, giving Pinellas residents another straight shot into Hillsborough via Linebaugh.

Eventually, in 2006 or 2007—memories of its advocates are fuzzy—the group won county support for funding a Planning, Development and Environmental (PDE) study. Soon after, the joint effort brought success. Hillsborough County placed the extension on a list of projects funded by the Community Investment Tax (CIT), the half cent sales tax that funded the building of Raymond James Stadium.

The one change?

The western most part of the extension—that portion of the extension that was to continue west of Countryway before looping southward to intersect with Linebaugh Avenue between The Preserve at Westchase and Aston Gardens—wasn’t funded.

Then, further delay.

Economic disaster struck with the Great Recession, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

“A sales tax is a more volatile revenue source. You’re in a recession and homeowners buy less,” explained Alden. “During the recession the sales tax revenues went down a lot so the value of the bonds was not as great as had been originally estimated. That’s why some of the projects lost funding.”

Among the projects cut from the CIT list was the Citrus Park Drive extension, which saw its funding cut in late 2008/early 2009. Around that same time, the UTB Alliance became inactive.

The end of the recession in 2009 brought a second explosion of development in the Northwest as developers turned to high-density apartment complexes to house many folks who had lost homes to foreclosure. New apartment complexes sprung up in front of Highland Park and along Countryway Boulevard. The increase in Linebaugh congestion became immediately apparent.

A second campaign to return funding to the extension fell to a new chair of Westchase’s Government Affairs Committee (GAC).

“The growth of traffic on Linebaugh was getting greater and greater, particularly from the west,” Bridges resident Odda recalled. “It was also becoming a main highway from Pinellas County to the east.”

With the announcement that the southwest corner of Linebaugh and Sheldon would be developed into a Costco, a supermarket and two additional restaurants, the extension became a primary focus of the WCA. I was asked in February of 2014 by the board to chair Government Affairs,” recalled Odda, then a WCA director. “The principle interest in that at that time was the extension. I knew that would be that would be a project of several years.”

The extension was mentioned in the WCA’s agreement for Costco’s zoning approval and was a focus of board testimony before the zoning hearing master.

“Our concern was our Westchase boulevard, Linebaugh, would be widened to six lanes,” said Odda.

Odda’s efforts over the next few years were complicated by Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners’ (BOCC) politics regarding transportation funding and the BOCC’s defeat of an effort to put a penny transportation sales tax on the ballot (that penny sales tax referendum later appeared on the ballot after a private group won enough signatures forcing its inclusion). Following the board’s vote, Commissioner Sandra Murman, a Republican who cast the vote against putting the referendum on the ballot, called for the board to dedicate hundreds of millions of new property tax dollars to addressing the county’s road maintenance backlogs and new construction projects. The county quickly began identifying which would be funded in the first decade.

“There were three or four major road projects that were comparable in the county,” Odda recalled. “Our job was to make certain they included the Citrus Park Drive extension.”

Odda’s county relationships, cultivated over a few years, paid off. Chief among them was his relationship with Murman, whom he credited with championing the project. “Early on she said this project had to be included.”

On Oct. 25, 2016, the Hillsborough BOCC voted to again fund the Citrus Park Drive extension.

“We rejoiced greatly when it was in the budget,” said Odda.

“I commend Joe Odda for all of his efforts and his tenacity,” said Ross, crediting Odda with getting the project over the finish line. “He certainly deserves a pat on the back for all his efforts.”

Odda, however, credited lots of other folks for the accomplishment, including Mary Rocereto, Darrick Sams, Ken Blair, Nancy Sells and Dale Sells, Ruben Collazo, Joaquin Arrillaga, Rick Goldstein, Susan Edgerly, Chris Barrett, Adrianne Sundheim, Bobby Holbrook, Diane Van Volkinburg, Lois Thomas Jerry Custin and Leigh Slement.

Yet as popular as the extension is with Westchase and some other neighborhoods, it was not without its opponents.

The Road’s Real Impacts

While most in Westchase—and perhaps even most in its surrounding neighborhoods—will be happy to see the new road, there were even opponents in Westchase. Pam Prysner, the early WCA Board member who founded the GAC and who now lives in Lithia, acknowledged that while her memory of all the 20-year-old details surrounding the extension are now vague, she differed from many in Westchase. “I was not in favor of it,” Prysner said of the extension. “I don’t recall being an advocate of that road.”

One of the reasons for its long delay in its recent groundbreaking was tied to county challenges in getting permits from the Army Corps of Engineers because of the proposed road’s impact on wetlands. Its construction will also level hundreds of mature trees. Initial work in July even required the relocation of endangered gopher tortoises. Citing the impacts of the recent sewer line installation near Fawn Ridge, longtime Citrus Park Drive extension opponent Barb Dawes stated, “We have seen a tremendous impact on the wildlife.” Neighbors, she said, now see coyotes regularly and have cited disruptions in the patterns of neighborhood deer. “That’s nothing compared to what we’ll see when they start the road.”

As county planning for the road stepped up in the early 2000s, so did opposition, particularly from Fawn Ridge, a neighborhood of 678 homes off Sheldon Road. “It was one of our roads in the extreme south of Fawn Ridge that is going to be impacted by the Citrus Park Drive extension,” said Mike Castro, a 22-year resident of the community. “We’ve always had a very active group from Breland Drive. Barb Dawes became a spokesperson for everyone on that road and the community at large with regards to Citrus Park Drive.”

Both Castro and Dawes acknowledge there was some awareness of the road prior to many Fawn Ridge residents moving in. Castro said he was told, but thought the extension would be a two-lane rural road like South Mobley.

“When we built, we were told they were going to build the mall,” said Dawes, who moved with her husband Chris, a Fawn Ridge HOA board member, into the neighborhood in 1995. “I don’t remember being told about the road. There are some neighbors who remember being told about the road and there are some neighbors who don’t.”

Without doubt, the Citrus Park Drive extension most impacts Fawn Ridge. It bisects Fawn Ridge Boulevard, the neighborhood’s current entrance, and will split its southernmost road, Key West Circle, from the rest of the community, essentially creating two separate and unconnected entrances to the community. The new, four-lane road will also run adjacent to homes along Hannigan Court and Breland Drive.

“Who would have ever imagined?” said Dawes. “Why would they put that road so close to those houses? And they are going to cut through those houses and divide this neighborhood.” In frustration, Dawes added, “The county allowed that to be planned that way.”

While stating he still supported the road as it promotes Northwest connectivity, road proponent Ross acknowledged the Fawn Ridge impact. “I thought their opposition was understandable,” he said. “There were a couple of folks who expressed no knowledge of the intended construction when they purchased their homes and I had great empathy for them and wished their sellers had disclosed that to them. “

Ross, however, added, that the road planners had conveyed to him that they carefully planned the road to minimally affect the neighborhood.

After the Fawn Ridge protests, Hillsborough County staff shifted the road a bit farther south away from the closest homes.

“It really wasn’t a concession,” Castro, however, said. “It was just going to be more practical for the construction and the water conduits they were going to put there.”

“Ten feet.” Dawes scoffed. “They didn’t move it. They didn’t move it at all.”

“We’re going to have a major Linebaugh running behind these houses,” added Dawes. “It will be interesting to see how much traffic is pulled off Linebaugh. It’s just going to move problems around.”

“If the county came and said they were going to build a roadway like the Linebaugh roadway with a nice median and walkways on the side, I think that would have been more palatable,” said Castro. “That at least is how I kind of feel emotionally.”

“We’re definitely having to fight. We’re the teeny, tiny person in all this thing,” said Dawes. “It won’t be the same. It will be a lesser quality, unfortunately.”

Castro and Dawes also acknowledged that there is even some support in Fawn Ridge itself for the extension, although it comes from owners of homes farther from the road. Fawn Ridge is zoned for Deer Park Elementary, forcing school buses and parents to drive past Westchase Elementary to get to their school. With the road’s completion, it will be a straight, 2.5-mile shot to Deer Park.

“There are some benefits to having the roadway there,” said Castro, who quickly offered a caveat. “Right now the major concern with the community is we’re losing the nice entrance that we have. We’re really concerned with how we’re going to project ourselves to everyone driving by the community with regards to the new entrance.”

Castro added that Fawn Ridge even had to fight the county for a right turn lane into the neighborhood off the Citrus Park Drive extension, a turn lane that he said should have been automatically added to the project based on the county’s own rules and projected traffic counts.

County changes to accommodate Fawn Ridge’s request for the turn lane were one of the causes of recent construction delays.

Now, Castro said, because the county took land from the adjacent Citrus Park ER for the turn lane, the business is demanding a curb cut onto Fawn Ridge Boulevard, which had previously been denied due to his neighborhood’s opposition.

Dawes added that while the county has offered an enhanced landscaping buffer, there’s no real sound barrier, just a white vinyl fence between Breland Drive’s homes and what promises to be a major thoroughfare.

“We’re still in negotiations with the county about how to get our entrance reconfigured and how it’s going to get paid for,” said Castro. “I’m cautious in dealing with them. They like to say everything is cool and we’ll take care of you guys, but at the end of the day, everything isn’t cool.” Castro added, “I’m just a little cynical at times.”

On the other side of the extension, close to the library, there were other opponents, among them residents of the Mandolin Estates and Mandolin Reserve neighborhoods, which open onto the current Citrus Park Drive dead end, featuring minimal traffic and sidewalks popular with walkers and runners.

“As far as the people in our neighborhood I’ve talked to and the most vocal about it, no one wants this road,” said Mandolin resident Doris Cockerell, who also serves as chair of the Park Place Community Development District. “We’ve been a little utopia back there without all the traffic.”

Cockerell, however, is quick to praise the county’s response to addressing residents’ concerns. She said the county has worked closely with the community and district, holding multiple small meeting with the stakeholders and offering enhanced landscaping and median planting. “The county has been very responsive,” acknowledged Cockerell. “They’ve been very straightforward with what’s going to happen. They’ve been trying to include us in meetings.”

Both Cockerell and Castro, however, share a fear—that the road will open the door to further development and building along it. Accomplishing that, however, would be a lengthy process as all the land along its corridor is currently owned by Hillsborough County, which previously indicated it would be developed into a passive park featuring bike and walking trails connecting Westchase to Ed Radice Park.

Yet the road project, as originally planned, even met with some Westchase opposition. Tree Tops residents complained about the proposal to connect Montague Street with the extension. Opposition from a small number of Bridges residents active in the Westchase association also prompted the WCA to petition the county to have the Montague Street connection removed from the plan.

“That is a big pet peeve of mine,” West Park Village resident Silva said of the Montague change. She observed that it seemed inconsistent to argue for connectivity to get the Citrus Park Drive extension built but then work against enhanced connectivity to protect your own community.

Silva, however, holds out hope that the Citrus Park Drive extension’s construction will prompt the county’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department to dust off those park plans for walking and biking trails. They were supposed to pass under the extension via a tunnel that would allow the safe passage of people and wildlife, like the pedestrian tunnels under Linebaugh.

That tunnel, said Silva, is still in the plans.

The Plans

Once completed by Prince, who won the $47 million contract, the Citrus Park Drive extension will consist of 2.73 miles of new road, two lanes in both directions. While it will have sidewalks and a landscaped median, the median will not be irrigated between Deer Park Elementary and Fawn Ridge. The median outside of Fawn Ridge will be maintained by Fawn Ridge and the irrigated median and rights of way between Deer Park Elementary and Countryway Boulevard will be maintained by the Park Place CDD.

While work in its early months will focus on wetland mitigation and wildlife relocation, actual road construction will kick off in a few months. Work closest to Deer Park Elementary is scheduled for next summer, to minimize its impact on the school.

Under the contract, work must be completed by July of 2021.

While its date was not available at publication, county staff stated a public meeting will be scheduled for early September to offer more details about the project and its construction schedule. Please visit www.westchasewow.com for the latest information or join the Facebook group Westchase Neighborhood News (the group with over 7,500 members).

By Chris Barrett, Publisher; WOW Cover Photo by James Broome Photography

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