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Bypass plans causing concern

LEESBURG -- Of the 50 or so Lee County residents who came to the Lee government center's Kinchafoonee Conference Room Monday to ask questions about the planned Leesburg North Bypass project, perhaps none had a greater interest in the transportation project than Eddie Lisenby.

If the bypass is built as it's been engineered by state Department of Transportation officials, it will come directly through Lisenby's bedroom.

"Sure, this project concerns me; that's why I'm here tonight," Lisenby said as his neighbors questioned Planning and Engineering Director Bob Alexander and other officials about specifics of conceptual drawings available at the meeting for their perusal. "Really, though, what am I gonna do? If they want my land, they're going to come and get it.

"The thing is, though, I live in a house that I built on two acres of land that I paid for. I'm one of those folks who believes that you can't fight progress; if the county needs my land, they need it. I'm not looking forward to the headache of moving, but so long as they get me another house in the county on two acres of land -- and it's not in a swamp somewhere -- I'm OK with it."

Alexander, who conducted the meeting, said most of the people he had talked with expressed concerns about the bypass project, drawn up to alleviate massive morning and afternoon school traffic snares in the city of Leesburg, but there had been little open hostility.

"Commissioner Rick Muggridge asked that we hold this meeting because a lot of people had expressed concerns about the path of the bypass project," the planning and engineering director said. "We wanted to show them what the state was proposing and give them a chance to ask any questions they might have.

"We sent letters to citizens who live (along the proposed route at) Smithville Road (State Route 195) so that they could look at the proposal and see how it will impact them. We certainly want state officials to hear their voices before a final decision is made."

There's another reason Lee and state officials want to make sure residents affected by the proposed bypass are not angry. More than $1 million has been set aside for attorneys fees in the event citizens challenge the proposal or any fair market value issue that might involve their property. If that money is not used in court, it leaves more for the project.

The total estimated cost of the Leesburg North Bypass project is $7,803,648. Twenty percent of the cost is to come from state funding and the other 80 percent from federal dollars. Alexander said some $4 million had already been allocated for right-of-way acquisition.

"This meeting tonight was for us to hear our citizens' concerns," he said. "Before a final decision is made, the state will conduct a public hearing to get input."

Lee County Administrator Alan Ours said the final decision on the project will come from the state.

"I don't believe it is the state's desire to take property from anyone," Ours said. "I feel certain they're going to work with everyone to try and get the most favorable plan they can. This meeting tonight is part of the process.

"Like with any issue of this nature, our local and state officials will listen to everyone's concerns and talk with them to see if there is any way to address those concerns. Sometimes those things get worked out; sometimes they don't. If they can't in this case, then the policymakers at some level will have to make a final decision."

Some of the residents who attended the two-hour meeting expressed concern that they had not been contacted before the release of the state's conceptualized drawings.

"I feel that they could have rerouted this thing another way, but what can we do now?" Charlie Rivers, who came to the meeting with his wife, Hattie, said. "We don't want to move, but the way they've got this thing drawn up, I don't see any other way."

Todd and Pamela Espy also had concerns about the planned bypass.

"When a road like this comes into a neighborhood like ours, it becomes prime real estate for convenience stores," Todd Espy said. "I don't know too many folks who want convenience stores moving in next to their homes."

As initially conceived, the North Bypass came with a price tag of more than $15 million. Value engineering by DOT officials cut the price by more than half, and state DOT Planning Director Todd Long said his department should be able to find funding for the project much earlier than anticipated if the community supports the re-engineered plan.

Alexander said the project could move through the engineering and acquisition phases as early as 2011 if there is little resistance to the project.