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Local
FDOT unveils completion dates for U.S. 19 widening projects

With all the hoopla surrounding the recent opening of the Suncoast Parkway and the controversial battle over a potential route for the Florida Turnpike extension, one major road project that’s been going on for years has been out of the news: the widening of U.S. 19 through Homosassa and Crystal River.

The Chronicle asked the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) for an update and here’s the latest:

Homosassa

Work on widening a 2.1-mile stretch from West Green Acres Street to South Jump Court in Homosassa began in November 2016 and experienced numerous work stoppages over the years. It came to a complete halt in July 2021 when the original project contractor (D.A.B. Constructors) filed for bankruptcy.

Palm Harbor-based Nelson Construction picked up the contract and resumed work Jan. 3, 2022. The projected completion date is late 2022.

A “significant portion” of the stormwater drainage system still needs work, FDOT spokesman John McShaffrey said. Several locations along U.S. 19 require asphalt pavement milling and repaving to correct deficiencies.

“There are a large number of repairs to sidewalk, curb and gutter, and regrading of some earthwork areas to conform to the design plans,” he said.

Going forward, McShaffrey said drivers can expect periodic lane closures along U.S. 19. There will also be a nighttime detour between Homosassa Trail and Grover Cleveland Boulevard to allow for signal relocation.

To keep tabs on this section of the project, visit https://www.fdot tampabay.com/project /110/405822-2-52-01

Crystal River

Widening of the 4.7 miles from Jump Court to Fort Island Trail began in November 2018 and is expected to finish in late 2023.

PCS Civil, Inc. picked up the contract from D.A.B. Constructors and are expected to complete the project in late 2023.

The contractor is working on storm drainage and traffic shifts at the north end of the project.

“Their primary focus has been at the south end to stabilize the ponds and median areas to maintain water quality standards,” McShaffrey said.

The remaining work includes paving the segment on U.S. 19 from just north of Penn Drive to Fort Island Trail.

Drivers can expect reduced access at Godfrey Lane while crews install a drainage crossing.

To follow the progress of this stretch, visit https://www.fdottampa bay.com/project /240/405822-3-52-01


Local
Residents of Ozello get creative with bicycles and blossoms

From pigs and pinwheels, an inflatable Snoopy with an Easter basket, flamingoes, fishing nets, corks and shells and blue crabs, even a scene from the Wizard of Oz, the community of Ozello is celebrating spring with “Bikes in Bloom.”

During April, residents are displaying their decorated bicycles throughout the community for no other reason except to bring a smile to people’s faces.

“During COVID, everything was shut down, and people kept to themselves or developed little groups,” said Cecelia Treat. “So, we wanted to do something to bring us back together as a community again.”

Longtime Ozello resident, Beverly Devillez, said she was part of Heritage Village on Citrus Avenue in Crystal River at one time and recalled the past Bikes in Bloom events in the downtown area.

Seashells and wine bottle corks add detail to this design in Ozello.

“I think God put this on my heart to do here,” Devillez said. “So, I posted the idea on Facebook and challenged everyone to decorate a bike.”

The only “rule” was to include flowers. Other than that, people could do anything they wanted.

“I never expected such a huge response,” she said. “We have more than 51 bikes so far, and there’s only about 400 people who live here, and many of those are weekenders.”

Devillez said those who didn’t have a bike used other things to decorate such as wagons or jumbo plastic toys.

One woman constructed a bicycle out of foam pool “noodles.”

Decorating ideas for Ozello Bikes in Bloom are at the discretion of the owner. This designer choose a ‘60s themed message of peace.

“They really added their personality,” Devillez said. “If you knew the people and saw their bikes, you could recognize their personality. The woman who did the ‘Wizard of Oz’ bike, she always wears high heels, and if you notice, the shoes the witch is wearing are heels.”

“This really has brought the community together,” Treat said. “People post pictures of their bikes on Facebook or we will, and that brings people out to look at them.

“People are proud of what they’ve done,” she said. “And when you’re out looking, people come out to talk.”

Deville added that, for her, it’s gotten her out of a “COVID slump.”

Brightly-colored bikes are found throughout Ozello creating a welcoming feel to the community.

“I had shut myself off for two years during COVID, and during that time, people moved away and new people moved in that I don’t know,” she said. “So, it’s a way for me to get to know some of the new people and for the new ones to get to know others.”

“Also,” Treat said, “everybody’s talking about the bikes, so now we have something positive as our topic of conversation instead of negative things.”

Bikes in Bloom started Friday, April 1, and on Saturday a strong storm blew through.

“The next day, everybody was out getting their bikes back up,” Devillez said. “This is Ozello. We’re resilient.”

Through the end of April, the Bikes in Bloom will be on display throughout Ozello. No maps are available and no addresses are given, but most of them begin around the six-mile marker on Ozello Trail to the trail’s end, and many are in neighborhood clusters.

Waterman Drive has at least 10 bikes on display.

Devillez advised going down the side streets off Ozello Trail.

Brightly-colored bikes like this one line many small roads in the Ozello community.

Ozello Trail, Country Road 494, runs a total of nine miles west and then north from its start at U.S. 19 to its end at the gulf.


Local
Withlacoochee River advocates brainstorm restoration plan

A “war room” of advocates for the Withlacoochee River assembled to start strategizing how to save their portion of the local waterway from further harm.

Roughly two dozen people – from river residents and experts, to government and water-restoration representatives – met the evening of Tuesday, April 5, at the Yankeetown-Inglis Woman’s Club.

They answered the rally call from Withlacoochee Aquatic Restoration Inc. (WAR) to brainstorm a game plan to rehabilitate the river.

“There are a lot of very bright people here,” WAR president Dan Hilliard told attendees. “You do have muscle, you do have a brain, you do have ideas, and we’re here to work on that; we want feedback, we want ideas.”

Since it was founded in 1984 under the original title of Withlacoochee Area Residents, WAR and its members have fought for the river’s health, especially its most downstream section in between Citrus and Levy counties – the Lower Withlacoochee River.

Lake Rousseau and the Withlacoochee River -- from its confluence with the Rainbow River near Dunnellon, to its mouth with the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown. This area was the focus of an environmental study published in July 2021.

In 2012, WAR and its donors paid for an extensive study on the Lower Withlacoochee, which stretches from Lake Rousseau to the river’s mouth with the Gulf of Mexico near Yankeetown.

Studies also spanned into Lake Rousseau and as far upriver as the Withlacoochee River’s junction with the Rainbow River near Dunnellon.

Findings published in July 2021 by Wetland Solutions Inc. showed there were “a variety of hydrological, physical, chemical, biological and structural impairments” to the water system because of around 120 years of human nature.

Lower Withlacoochee River Environmental Analysis

As a result, invasive vegetation has flourished while native fisheries and other river habitats have either suffered or died off.

This report and its conclusions confirmed what those who use the Lower Withlacoochee or live alongside it have experienced over the years, and they want those in power to do something.

“When we first got here…we just saw different life…lots of different things, and it’s really sad to see it change and get mucky,” Liz Westers said at Tuesday’s meeting about when she and husband, John, moved to the area in December 2015. “To me, it’s so important to come up with a campaign and get people involved.”

“I’ve seen this river go from being my piece of heaven to almost my piece of hell,” added Tommy Hines, chairman of the Yankeetown Planning and Zoning Commission who’s been fishing on the river since 1978. “I’m sick and tired of seeing it, and there are things that can be done.”

Hilliard said a conference between the WAR board and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is being schedule to discuss how to move forward with the $20 million-$150 million in solutions Wetland Solutions pitched in its report to restore the Lower Withlacoochee.

“It’s something worth preserving,” Hilliard said. “It’s the golden egg, and we need to stop killing the goose.”

Hilliard also said WAR is in need of board members to continue its fight. Interested? Visit WAR’s website at warinconline.com.

WAR members Steven Scannell and Brian Nemeth moderated Tuesday’s roundtable discussion to help identify the problems, come up with remedies and mull over how to get the attention of government officials.

“It’s not right, and I don’t think the right buttons have been pushed ... and we need to push some buttons right now,” Nemeth said. “We’re coming up with any ideas we can come up with. ... We’ve got make this work; it’s time.”

At the end of Tuesday’s gathering, WAR board members voted for Scannell to explore the cost to develop a Listserv, a computer-software program used to maintain online discussions through email.

Scannell recommended a Listserv because it could help WAR and others in similar groups come together to create a foundation of ideas that can grow with each conversation into potential action.

“We need to get organized, and organize our support,” he said, “and, looking at the people in this room, it shouldn’t be too hard.”

Many on Tuesday pointed blame at the government-funded herbicide spraying operations to kill invasive and congestive aquatic plants in the Withlacoochee River and Lake Rousseau.

Along with being fearful of what chemicals are in the herbicides, those at the meeting also expressed concerns with the how the dead plants either settle or resurface to create layers of muck that drift and collect in the Lower Withlacoochee.

“It looks like a golf green,” said Bobby Varner, who moved to the area about three years ago from Mississippi.

WAR’s funded study on the Lower Withlacoochee also blamed the unfinished Cross-Florida Barge Canal for starving the river section of its natural water flow to maintain healthy ecosystems.

A close-up of Lake Rousseau and the Lower Withlacoochee River, which is divided by the unfinished and discontinued Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

Lake Rousseau feeds the first half of the Lower Withlacoochee river, which then empties into the barge canal. However, the second half of the lower river is dependent on flows from a canal bypass.

If efforts aren’t made to improve the water quality upriver, some in Tuesday’s group noted, any cleanups of the Lower Withlacoochee would be fruitless in the long term.

“If you don’t clean Lake Rousseau up,” Varner said, “the Withlacoochee River’s not going to be cleaned up because that’s where it’s all coming from.”

Varner and Ninon Roy founded the Lake Rousseau Restoration nonprofit to, among other efforts, pay contractors to remove the lake’s unwanted vegetation mechanically when there’s funds available. For more information, visit lakerousseaurestoration.org.

“If we can harvest the grasses ... and take it out of lake, then at least we’re getting something done,” Varner said. “A lot of people don’t like what’s going on, but nobody seems like they want to help.”

Representatives from Save Crystal River Inc. and its contractor Sea & Shoreline were invited by WAR to share how their King’s Bay Restoration Project has ridded the bay of harmful vegetation, and replaced it with water-cleansing and habitat-building eelgrasses.

Doug Neal, a riverfront resident who’s been coming to the Yankeetown area for roughly 30 years, testified to the project’s success.

“If we can replicate here what you guys have done there that would be a great success,” he said. “That’s what I’d love to see.”

No matter what solutions are proposed, they have to get the buy-in from the public before lawmakers will back them.

“If you’re going to get anything done with the legislation or anything,” Hines said, “you have to get the support of the people. Because if you don’t ... you’re not going to get it.”

WAR member John Adams suggested WAR invest in the production of inexpensive and targeted television ads to stoke constituents and put pressure on local, state and federal legislators.

“You don’t have to spend a fortunate to make a lot of stuff happen,” he said. “Votes are stronger than money.”


Local
Library director: No plans for another Pride Month display this June

Library Services Director Eric Head said he has no plans to put up an LGBTQ Pride Month display this June.

He said that gives staff time to work up a comprehensive library policy going forward and allows for a cooling off period while emotions are running hot in the community.

Head told the Chronicle Editorial Board Wednesday he doesn’t want to add more fuel to an already incendiary issue.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) month occurs nationwide in June. Last year, two local libraries had displays designed to educate people and bring awareness to the month.

Those displays prompted a firestorm of controversy from people who believed the library was using taxpayer dollars to promote an inappropriate sexual lifestyle and was indoctrinating children.

Leading the charge is John Labriola of Inverness, who has lobbied against using taxpayer dollars to promote what he calls a sexualized political agenda being promoted at taxpayers’ expense.

Head has said repeatedly the public library doesn’t promote anything. The display, as with all displays, is only meant to be informative, he said.

As of Wednesday, Head has received an unprecedented 45 applicants to the five open positions on the nine-member advisory board. Typically, he said he’s lucky to get two or three. Head said he’s fairly sure the Pride Month display is driving up interest.

County commissioners will discuss the applications at their April 26 meeting.

Head said he and his 49-member staff’s attention has been somewhat diverted the past several months over the display flap.

But there are many things going on and he outlined some projects:

Modernizing the Lakes Regional Library in Inverness and the Coastal Region branch in Crystal River. Both are about 35 years old and don’t have the meeting space for groups or the digital infrastructure.

Partnering with the county extension office to create a “seed” library at Lakes Regional. Patrons could check out fruit and vegetable seed packets, take them home and grow them, harvest the seeds and return them to the library so someone else can check them out.

Increasing digital capabilities, including the newly created in-house library website and debuting an online calendar program for folks to reserve space.

Using the money from a $27,000 state grant to upgrade Wi-Fi availability.

“When times get tough, people have devices but cannot afford internet bills at home so they come to the library,” Head said.

Increase outreach to the community and make them aware of what’s available.

Preparing for summer reading programs for children ages 6-9 and 10-13. For more information, visit citruslibraries.org


News_notes
Chronicle seeks photos of graduating home-schooled seniors

The Chronicle wants to include graduating home-schooled seniors from Citrus County in the upcoming graduation tab for 2022. Also welcome are graduating seniors from out-of-county schools who reside in Citrus County.

Please email an attachment of the graduates’ photo and his/her name to cconnolly@chronicleonline.com or mail the name and a photo to the Chronicle at 1624 N. Meadowcrest Blvd., Crystal River, FL 34429 no later than Thursday, April 14. Information and photos can also be dropped off at the front desk or in the front entrance mail slot at the Meadowcrest office in Crystal River.


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