Hillsborough EPC reluctantly approves New Tampa bridge permit

01/27/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Despite years of public outcry from some local residents, the City of Tampa wants to build a bridge that would link New Tampa and Commerce Park Boulevards. The county board overseeing environmental issues gave the city permission to move ahead on the project today, but with some reluctance.

It’s a battle that’s been dragging on for about three years. The city of Tampa sees the bridge as a means of easing congestion on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, a New Tampa thoroughfare that can often look like a parking lot. Proponents like developer Michael Urette told the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission the bridge, which would go over I-275, is a much-needed development.

The bridge was originally part of a planned east-west connector road for I-275. Lack of funding has caused planners to nix road, but they were still obligated to build the bridge. The St. Pete Times reports this is because developers had already paid impact fees associated with building the bridge, but city officials have also said they think it’s a much needed means of easing traffic. Andrea Zelman said she was an assistant city attorney for the City of Tampa when residential development was booming in New Tampa. She said developments like West Meadows, Tampa Palms, and Tampa Technology Park might not have gotten approval if planners hadn’t assumed a bridge would be constructed at some point.

Opponents of the project say it will cause unnecessary noise in the surrounding area. Andrea Braboy has long been an opponent of the project, along with her husband Warren Dixon and West Meadows resident Evelyn Romano. She read the state statute that established the EPC, and said denying Tampa permission to build the bridge was well within its power.

Tampa Palms resident Roberta Buckle said the commission should put off the decision until the widening of Bruce B. Downs is finished.

Andy Zodrow, an attorney with the EPC, said the agency can’t base its ruling on anything other than direct environmental impacts, and that the building permit for the bridge includes a mitigation strategy to offset its impacts on surrounding wetlands. Beyond that, he said, there’s little the agency can legally do to stop the project.

Warren Dixon is a retired lawyer representing the project’s opponents, now in their third year of legal battles to stop the project. He’s married to Andrea Braboy, who read the state statute outlining the EPC’s mission. He said blocking such projects like the New Tampa bridge falls squarely within the purview of the EPC.

Commissioner Victor Crist, a former state senator, said the spirit of the law creating the EPC requires commissioners to view issues like this from all aspects of public health and welfare.

Commissioner Crist was the only board member to vote against the city’s request. The other commissioners present voted in favor of the permit, but were vocally reluctant about it. Les Miller was absent. Commissioner Ken Hagan said the law was too narrow for him to vote the way he wanted.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner strongly commended Dixon for his efforts. Beckner said had circumstances been different, he wouldn’t have supported a motion favoring the bridge.

About 27 members of the public came to speak about the bridge at today’s Environmental Protection Commission meeting.

The Hillsborough County Commissioners, in their role as the EPC, gave final approval to the wetland impact permit. Bridge challengers have 30 days to appeal the ruling if they choose to.

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