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New entrance brings out risk averse retirees

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By MELODY JAMESON

Sun City Center - Driven by concerns about increased traffic and crime, hundreds of retirees here have signaled they’ll pass on a new southside entrance.

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Surrounded by Sun City Center residents who nearly filled their Community Hall to air the pros and cons of opening a second entrance on the community's south side, Paul Wheat gestures as he makes a point about one aspect of the issues. As part of the town hall style discussion, Wheat and Paul Courter, both south side residents, presented opposing views of the gate debate which has surfaced from time to time over the years. More than 500 residents joined in the discussion, asking questions of law enforcement personnel as well as of county transportation planners. (Melody Jameson photo)
More than 500 of them assembled for a town hall session last week to discuss in a generally civil manner the pros and cons of either a free-flowing multi-vehicle connector linking South Pebble Beach Boulevard with U.S. 301 or a blocked opening at the site available only in an evacuation emergency.

They heard the cases made for both approaches. They listened to public safety concerns expressed by local law enforcement and to the perspective of county transportation planners and to a deeply interested new developer. Then, they arose to take microphones, expressing their views in unambiguous terms.

Emergency gate only forces appeared to outnumber the open connector promoters about two to one.

And, they’ll have a chance to make it official with a referendum vote during more than three weeks next month, perhaps ending the great gate debate which has bubbled to the surface periodically for years.

In the process of airing the matter, they also succeeded in getting reworked ballot language to replace statements they considered confusing. Early this week, the SCC Community Association directors clarified the question. When CA members begin marking the ballots that are to appear in the February issue of their “News of Sun City Center” association newsletter, they will choose either “I am in favor of unrestricted public access in to and out of Sun City Center from U.S. Highway 301 to South Pebble Beach Boulevard” or “I am against unrestricted public access in to and out of Sun City Center from U.S. Highway 301 to South Pebble Beach Boulevard except for an emergency exit/entrance gate.” (Emphasis added.)

The newsletter is scheduled to appear in residents’ mailboxes next week (February 1). Deadline for return of marked ballots is 6 PM, Wednesday, February 23.

Paul Courter, who lives on Platinum Drive, argued for the open connection between South Pebble Beach and U.S. 301, stating that every driver using the highway will be one less “clogging South Pebble Beach Blvd.” and that using SPB as a short cut from the highway to S.R. 674 or vice versa, as feared, actually is not a time saving move. “In fact, the highway is quicker and easier,” he asserted.

Courter also disputed maintenance of the U.S. 301 opening for emergency only use, terming “emergency access” as actually “no access” and suggesting that if a major hurricane were approaching, the community and its emergency southside gate would not be a high priority for attention from authorities because it is not in an evacuation zone.

In addition, the new connector proponent asked rhetorically why residents on the north side are not campaigning to close the several points of entry at East and West Del Webb, El Rancho and Augusta Drive. He answered his question with “They don’t like being penned in, and neither do I.”

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Paul Courter, a resident of Sun City Center's south side who strongly favors a second entrance allowing open vehicular traffic to and from U.S. 301, listed a number of reasons for creating the connector linking South Pebble Beach Boulevard and the highway during the town hall session. He believes such a connection will take traffic off SPB Blvd.
Courter stated, too, that intersection of SPB Blvd. and US. 301 has been in the site development plan “from the start” but downplayed the concept that SCC is a “self-contained community,” saying the term does not appear anywhere in Florida’s statutes.

On this latter point ­— as well as others — Paul Wheat, another southside resident, disagreed. Wheat, presenting the case for maintaining only an emergency exit, said the “self-contained” terminology indeed appears on certain pertinent documents. Wheat, a former CA director and president, also emphasized that “ two dated conceptual drawings…drawn up by the (early) developer, are the only key official documents that I have located that depict any extension of South Pebble Beach all the way to U.S. 301.” The general site development plan, he added, is an approved conceptual plan drawn by the developer. “It is not etched in stone.”

Speaking of plans, Wheat continued, the most recent is the SCC Community Plan developed for and by SCC residents, adopted less than two years ago and made part of Hillsborough County’s legally binding Comprehensive Plan. There is neither mention of nor depiction of any connection of U.S. 301 and SPB Blvd. in the adopted community plan, he added.

Another consideration, Wheat said, is who will pay the costs of connecting SPB Blvd. to the highway and bear whatever other expenses are involved in making improvements to allow safe turns onto and from U.S. 301. He suggested that neither the state nor the county, given present circumstances, would want to shoulder the financial burden. In addition, he noted that Minto, the current developer, has not made any such offer.

Wheat, summing up his position, referred to “an old adage that I believe applies… A bird in hand is worth more than two in the bush.”

Yet another point was made by Charles White, a transportation specialist in the county’s Planning and Growth Management Department. White advised the crowd that studies have shown the level of traffic generated by the senior population in age-restricted SCC, even at build out, will not justify another ingress-egress location. On the other hand, he added, if the age-restriction overlay were to be discarded and the community’s age demographics changed as it became a family development, the peak hour traffic well could justify another entrance/exit.

Asked about this potential after the town hall, Bill Bullock, Minto vice president for the Central Florida region, pointed out the company is keenly interested in the referendum outcome as a sign of the community’s prevailing sentiment on the issues. He also acknowledged that the developer has viewed the community only as an age-restricted enclave designed for the comfort of a senior population. It is on this perspective that the company has based a number of its decisions, he indicated.

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Major Ron Hartley,who commands the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office district four encompassing all of the South County, listens intently as SCC residents share their views on the prospect of a second entrance to the community's south side.
Public safety was the primary issue for Major Ron Hartley, current commander of the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office district four which encompasses all of South Hillsborough County. Hartley told the town hall assemblage a number of reasons argue against a new south end entrance-exit from the resident safety and law enforcement standpoints, chief among them that SPB Blvd. could become a thru-way, mixing more motor vehicles with golf carts and outside residents with SCC citizens.

Sgt. Joe Burt, SCC’s first community resource deputy, reminded residents that in hurricane conditions their safest location could be their concrete block SCC homes generally located beyond the high hazard zones. Moreover, he pointed out that today’s technology permits several days warning preceding a hurricane strike.

For their part, residents frequently zeroed in on the traffic aspects. Several residents on the north side where there are multiple entrances and exits warned their southside neighbors, calling both East and West Del Webb “racetracks” where drivers often headed to or from Aston Gardens at the far north end of the community travel at 50 and 60 miles per hour although the internal roads are posted with 30 mph signs.

Those living on the south side emphasized the importance of their golf carts as primary and secondary transportation, with one woman relating her experience being struck by a car as she drove her golf cart on SPB Blvd, not open to through traffic. The damages totaled $3,500, she said. Another mentioned affinity for her car-mounted GPS directional system and wondered aloud whether such equipment would direct drivers to short cut from U.S. 301 to S.R. 674 via SPB Blvd.

Another asked rhetorically how many residents really would want to thread their way into 70-mile per hour traffic on U.S. 301 as yet another noted that older residents manage to get safely onto the highway from mobile home parks along US. 301 in Manatee County.

A bicycling south side resident pointed to the increased danger for cyclists on SPB Blvd. if it were being used by non-residents to get from highway to highway through the community while still others suggested they choose to live in SCC to get out of the fast lane. So, an exit onto U.S. 301 to save time is not particularly attractive to them.

All in all, one summed up, it’s not worth the risk.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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