By DOTTY NIST
“We have to get over this apathy and see it for what it is,” Walton County landowner M.C. Davis told a group of 82 citizens gathered in south Walton County on March 11.
Present were educators, politicians, business people, developers, community leaders, and environmentalists from Walton, Okaloosa, Bay, Leon and Holmes counties and elsewhere. A major topic of discussion was a recent proposal to the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor (NFTCA) by a private company for expansion of the U.S. 331 Bay bridge, either through stimulus funds or as a toll facility. Attendees discussed the NFTCA itself, as well, and the quasi-governmental transportation authority’s public participation policies.
In 2005, the Florida Legislature approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Ray Sansom to create the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor. Created as “an agency of the state,” with the mission of improving mobility along the U.S. 98 corridor, the NFTCA was empowered to construct roads and other transportation facilities, including bridges, issue bonds, impose tolls, enter into public/private partnerships, and even acquire property through eminent domain, including other abilities. To serve as the NFTCA’s governing body were eight voting members, one from each of the eight counties encompassed by the organization, each member appointed by the governor. The current members were chosen by former Gov. Jeb Bush, and their terms will be up in October.
The NFTCA adopted a master plan in 2007 for the eight-county area, and a plan update is required to be adopted in July of each year.
In February 2009, the NFTCA received a proposal from a private company known as Moving US 331 Forward, L.L.C. The company proposed a public/private partnership with the entity whereby the L.L.C. would expand to four lanes the portion of U.S. 331 between the south end of the Clyde B. Wells Bridge (the bridge spanning the Choctawhatchee Bay) and SR-20 in Freeport, including the construction of a second two-lane bridge to be funded either through stimulus funds or as a toll facility.
The proposal raised alarm in the community that it could result in the bridge no longer being free to cross and that the bridge could come under the ownership and control of the private company.
Davis, owner of the Nokuse Plantation conservation area, noted at the outset of his remarks at the March 11 gathering, that it was not his intent to charge anyone or any entity with any “legal wrong” but only to talk about “what we think is wrong” with the NFTCA and its way of operating.
He observed that in his experience no statute has conferred “such extraordinary powers” on an entity as does the one governing the NFTCA.
Davis said he was not against public/private partnerships. “I’ve been in a number of them,” he said, noting that all he has been involved in were nonprofit and “highly scrutinized.”
He called upon Dr. Matt Aresco, director of Nokuse Plantation, to comment on the NFTCA master plan.
Aresco warned that the roads proposed throughout the Panhandle in the master plan would negatively impact “over a decade of land conservation efforts in Northwest Florida,” including the Northwest Florida Greenway now being established to connect over one million acres of state, federal and private conservation property from Eglin Air Force Base through the Apalachicola National Forest.
Aresco criticized the master plan for involving the construction of new roads, rather than utilizing existing roadways. He warned of harm to threatened and endangered species and their habitat. The proposed roads would make it “almost impossible” to manage wildlife habitat through the important tool of prescribed burning, he added.
Aresco also pointed to the NFTCA’s eminent domain powers, which, he said, could result in property purchased for conservation being acquired for road construction, a possibility he viewed as a violation of the public trust.
“An ambush clause” was how M.C. Davis referred to the NFTCA’s statutory requirement to advertise the bridge/road proposal and then entertain a decision at the end of a 60-day period.
“It takes 14 months to get a building permit!” Davis exclaimed.
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) recently asked the NFTCA to lengthen the procedure on the proposal by six months.
Community leader Anita Page presented some research on the state’s five transportation authorities. Unlike the other four authorities, the NFTCA is not legally required to cooperate with state, federal, and local officials, she noted, except in instances where the authority is constructing a state road or county road. In that case, concurrence with the state Department of Transportation or the county must occur, she said.
In all the transportation authorities other than the NFTCA, elected officials are required to serve as voting members, Page added. In contrast, the eight members of the NFTCA are appointed by the governor and must not be elected officials. She noted that three of the transportation authorities also require citizen representatives be included on their boards, while there is no such requirement with the NFTCA.
Page also noticed a “common thread” in a review of the NFTCA’s “somewhat sketchy” minutes, comments from citizens attending their meetings to the effect that “You are not responding to me,” or, “It doesn’t seem you’re listening to me.”
Linda Young of the Clean Water Network complained that members of her organization attending NFTCA meetings were “treated disrespectfully” when they made comments and asked to have questions answered, and that their request for an administrative hearing on the master plan was refused.
It was Davis’ opinion that the purpose of the master plan was to benefit the St. Joe Company and the under-construction Panama City/Bay County International Airport near West Bay.
“Are we going to let St. Joe run roughshod over us?” he asked.
Driftwood Estates homeowner Alan Osborne said he had worked for government for 23 years. “It’s only good if citizens care,” he stated.
Osborne said he did not think the need for four-laning the bridge could be quantified. He speculated that the widening of surrounding roads might improve traffic flow enough to make expanding the bridge unnecessary for the present.
Walton County Commission Chair Sara Comander commented that, since the time the L.L.C.’s proposal was presented to the BCC, she had urged citizens to contact her with their concerns. She encouraged them to continue to do so. So far, she said, all input has been against four-laning the bridge as a toll facility. She provided her e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Kramer suggested that the group send a letter to the NFTCA requesting that any action on the L.L.C.’s proposal be put off until mid-October. He further suggested sending copies of the letter to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners and Gov. Crist.
Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation suggested that the group put forth a slate of appointees to serve on the NFTCA and also draft proposed changes to improve the NFTCA statute.
Biologist Margaret Gunzberger of Nokuse Plantation suggested contacting legislators, including Rep. Ray Sansom, to ask for a delay on the bridge proposal.
At the close of the meeting, Davis said he was not sure whether or not additional meetings of the grass-roots assembly would be scheduled. Contacted on March 12, he said the letter to the NFTCA from the group, now being called Concerned Citizens, was being composed. He added that additional information on citizen involvement would be forthcoming.