LIVE OAK — On the verge of tears, David LaCroix asked the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners and the Florida Department of Transportation to consider his property and the numerous trees that line it.
During a discussion at the board’s Jan. 7 meeting in regards to FDOT’s proposed 2023 project to replace the Little River bridge on 180th Street, LaCroix said the current proposal of a permanent northern shift of the new bridge would not just mean a loss of 75 linear feet of his property — as opposed to 20 linear feet along the length of the project for just replacing the bridge at its current site — but it would also mean the loss of those trees, as well as a fence and gate that they have constructed, which provides their property a buffer from the bridge traffic.
“We had been looking for several years for a property like this one and when we found it, we fell in love with it,” LaCroix said, adding that he and his wife bought the property last January, unaware of the plans to rebuild the bridge. “The worst thing is that this proposal will result in them taking all of the trees…The greater taking that they now propose is completely unnecessary. We ask you to do what is right, both morally and legally.
“This small inconvenience (extra time needed on a detour) is temporary, while the taking of our property will be forever. And when our trees are destroyed, it will take 50 years to replace it.”
LaCroix will get his wish as the board unanimously urged FDOT to utilize a detour during the bridge replacement and reconstruct the bridge at its current location rather than shift it to the north.
“I can’t support eminent domain and I’ve asked DOT not to,” District 3 Commissioner Ricky Gamble said. “If it was my property and you put me in this situation, I’d fight you tooth and nail to save my piece of property and I don’t think there’s any of you out there that would disagree with that.”
Ronnie Richardson, the commissioner from District 5, which includes the McAlpin area impacted by the bridge replacement, agreed. As did Chairman Len Stapleton.
“I’m not in favor of taking anybody’s property, I don’t want anyone to come take mine,” Stapleton said.
FDOT officials indicated they likely would follow the wishes of the board and county’s residents on the project, which will take around 9-12 months to complete and cost more than $1.8 million. The permanent shift north of the bridge would have taken 12-18 months to finish at a cost of more than $2.2 million but wouldn’t have necessitated a detour during the process.
That decision followed a civil discussion of nearly an hour that included the Flying Little River Homeowner’s Association supporting the permanent shift option.
According to Ron Greene, the spokesman for the group, a detour will lead to a split for the community. The bridge on 180th Street and Little River itself divide the community of 150 members in half — approximately half are on the east side of the river with the others on the west. A detour will also inconvenience the HOA members due to increased cost and time in maintaining the runways in their community. The HOA owns and uses just one tractor for maintenance.
“A one-year road closure splitting in half a homeowners association and closing 180th Street should be avoided at all costs,” Greene said.
Other residents were also concerned with safety in regards to the detour routes. The northern detour utilizing 176th Street and 73rd Road is a narrow, graded dirt road that faces flooding issues during rain events as well as the road washing out in places. The southern detour on 81st Road and 192nd Street is paved but is 6.3 miles long and not in the best shape.
“That road is so narrow and when it’s wet, it is slick,” Anne Ferguson said. “And sometimes you go down, and part of the road is missing.
“My whole concern is the danger of that road.”
County Administrator Randy Harris assured the board and the residents that county staff would have plenty of time to make improvements to the road to address those safety concerns before it is needed as a detour. Eddie Hand, the county’s interim fire chief, also said the detour would not hinder his department’s ability to provide services.
So it came down to using those detour routes and inconvenience residents along the road, including the members of the HOA, or shift the bridge to the north and lead to greater loss of land for several property owners.
FDOT’s Stephen Browning had already said other options that were examined, including the use of a temporary bridge, were not viable in part due to a much greater cost, which was the preference of Greene and the HOA.
“Our community belief is that the use of eminent domain should never be considered if any other viable solution exists,” Greene said adding the more costly construction of a temporary bridge south of the current bridge would have lessened the impact of detours, while also leading to less land being taken for the project. “We must remember we are a government of the people, for the people, by the people. If we don’t help protect others’ property they will wind up taking our own.”
FDOT originally proposed using the detour method before a February 2019 public meeting on the issue led to them looking more into the northern shift in order to avoid needing the detours, which was the consensus at that meeting.
“We tried to minimize the impacts as best we could,” Browning said, adding there is no way to eliminate the impact for a road that sees about 500 vehicles traveling on it daily.
And the board ultimately favored the option that led to less land being taken from residents.
LaCroix helped that cause, too, when he told the packed crowd at the meeting that he would be willing to provide a path along his property to a shallow spot on the river that usually is dry, he said, for area residents to use to cross to see their neighbors and friends. He also said he had already spoken with Harris and was willing to help with the cost of repairing the issues on 176th Street and also would be willing to purchase a used mower to help with maintaining the runways.
“A community working together,” Richardson said.