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Parkway extension to US 19 added to MPO long-range plan

Transportation officials Thursday took a big step to formally ensure the Suncoast Parkway gets extended from State Road 44 to U.S. 19.

Construction starts next year on extending the parkway 3 miles from S.R. 44 to County Road 486, about 1,500 feet east of the Pine Ridge entrance. That is a certainty.

But on Thursday, the Hernando/Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) voted 8-0 on an amendment to the 2045 long-range transportation plan that includes the extension of the parkway from County Road 486 to County Road 495 and from County Road 495 to U.S. 19 north of Crystal River.

Kinnard

That was a big deal said MPO member and County Commissioner Jeff Kinnard. And it was no wonder when it came time to vote on that amendment, he enthusiastically told his fellow board members, “I will gladly make the motion to approve.”

Once it makes the long-range plan, “it’s there to stay,” Kinnard said.

County Commissioner and MPO member Ruthie Schlabach said after the meeting she wanted to make that motion but Kinnard beat her to it.

“It’s definitely good news for Citrus County and Crystal River,” Schlabach said.

Schlabach

Crystal River officials have repeatedly said they want the parkway route to end north of the city so as not to add congestion to their downtown area.

The long-range plan is a federally mandated document updated every five years, and outlines the vision for transportation in Citrus County for the next 25 years. It looks at the projected outline of pedestrian, bicycle, transit, automobile, rail, and air travel through 2045.

Also Thursday, the MPO considered an amendment to the 2022-2026 transportation improvement program, or TIP, that would include design funding for extension of the Suncoast Parkway 2 through Citrus County.

Updated annually, the program sets the schedule for improvements to the county’s transportation system over the next five years. This shorter-term plan assigns available funding to specific projects and covers all modes of transportation.

Once the parkway ends at County Road 486, it will extend from there to North Citrus Avenue (County Road 495). Design on that 6-mile extension has started and is funded for fiscal year 2026 at a cost of $226 million.

The stretch from County Road 495 to U.S. 19 is funded for design only in fiscal year 2023. Construction is not yet funded.

This past Monday, the Suncoast Parkway from U.S. 98 in Hernando County to State Road 44 in Lecanto opened to drivers.

“It’s very exciting,” Schlabach told the board. “We’ve been waiting 20 years for it.”

Hernando County Commissioner and MPO member Steve Champion said he was excited for Citrus County and he believes it will experience the same kind of commercial and residential growth his county received when the toll road was extended through Hernando two decades earlier.

“I think you’re going to see a big boom,” Champion told the Citrus County MPO members.


Local
SOS Food Pantry continues to feed people while seeking volunteers

On any given Thursday, an average of 150 cars go through the well-oiled machine that’s the SOS Food Pantry food distribution in Hernando.

Well before dawn, cars start lining up in the parking lot of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church at 439 E. Norvell Bryant Highway where SOS has its own shed and walk-in cooler to store food for their weekly food giveaway to hungry people.

In the past year they’ve replaced their shed that had fallen apart, repaired the compressor in the freezer after it went out and lost their big walk-in refrigerator after it was struck by lightning.

Thanks to the community, $6,500 was raised to buy a new one.

Each Thursday, Maria Cyr, SOS president, arrives at 3 a.m. to get things ready for the volunteers she depends on who will arrive a few hours later to fill and set up the boxes of food that will be loaded into trunks and backs of pickup trucks beginning at 8 a.m.

nancykennedy / Nancy Kennedy / Chronicle Reporter 

On Thursday, March 3, Stan Grippe and Kathy Harrington pack meat in bags and boxes as part of the weekly SOS Food Pantry distribution.

SOS meat packing

When there’s enough people, the process goes smoothly and quickly.

But, as Cyr said Thursday, March 3, currently they’re about five volunteers short of a full crew.

So, that day she was especially grateful that five men from the U-Turn for Christ addiction recovery ministry in Crystal River had come to volunteer.

“We need a couple of strong guys or women to be able to pick up 40- to 50-pound boxes, help stock shelves and freezers,” Cyr said. “Currently, some of the older staff are unable to fill that bill.”

She added that they need people “who will follow directions, come in for about two to three hours on Wednesday and/or five hours on Thursdays.”

Every volunteer goes home with a box of food.

“I take care of my people,” Cyr said.

Among SOS’s regular volunteers are Brian and Rose Dew.

The Dews have an outreach ministry to homeless people in the Hernando area, including feeding people every Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. at Hernando Lake beach and park.

SOS Food Pantry helps supply the food they cook and give away.

“We’ve been doing it for about four years,” Brian Dew said. “We were working with the Salvation Army at the time cooking food and they gave us about five cases of sausages that they couldn’t use.

“We’d been going down to the lake talking to people, preaching the gospel and praying with people, so I started cooking the sausages on the grill and passing them out to the people,” he said.

Word got out and they’ve been cooking and feeding people ever since.

Dew said John Bordeaux, who headed SOS until his death in 2020, saw what they were doing and said SOS would donate food to them.

“It’s about community,” Dew said about the SOS program. “It’s about bringing our community together to love one another, rely on one another and help one another.”

For more information about volunteering with SOS Food Pantry, email: veggiepal2@yahoo.com or call 352-299-7704. Find them on Facebook at SOS Food Pantry.


Local
Crystal River man goes to Ukraine to get married, gets caught in a war zone

Crystal River resident Jeff Patton, a widower since 2014, had waited eight years to meet the right woman.

Special to the Chronicle 

On Feb. 17, Jeff Patton married Olena Skrynchenko in Ukraine. One week later, they were fleeing for their lives.

Halfway around the world in Ukraine, Olena Skrynchenko had been waiting 22 years to meet the right man.

Both of them ordained ministers, knew when they met online that God had brought them together.

So, on Feb. 9, Patton arrived in Kyiv, and on Feb. 17 the couple were married.

One week later, they, along with Olena’s severely disabled 27-year-old son, were fleeing for their lives, heading to Poland.

“We left Kyiv and drove west along the northern border of Belarus, which is where the Russian army made its first breach into Ukraine,” Patton said by phone from Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday. “At one point, the army was advancing across the road where we were at, behind us. And if we would’ve had to stop for anything, we would probably not be giving interviews.”

Patton added that they hadn’t experienced any fear, although they had been concerned and cautious.

“We knew God had interrupted our original plans and that we were where we needed to be, going in the direction we needed to go,” he said.

Originally, the couple had planned to do ministry together in Ukraine and in Europe, with Patton traveling back and forth in the following months working on his wife’s and her son’s immigration process.

Patton had a return flight reservation for Feb. 24, but that was canceled a few days after their wedding.

Russia invaded Ukraine the morning of Feb. 24.

Patton said that on Feb. 23 he told his wife of six days, “I have a feeling Mr. Putin’s going to do something in the morning.”

Markus Schreiber / AP 

Women and children, fleeing from Ukraine, sleep at a makeshift shelter Thursday in the train station in Przemysl, Poland. More than 1 million people have fled Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in the swiftest refugee exodus in this century, the United Nations said Thursday.

“Sure enough, I got a phone call from my son in the states,” he said. “He said, ‘Dad, I think you’re going to get some shelling,’ and we started hearing artillery in the distance around 4 or 5 a.m. on the 24th.

“So, we spent an entire day pulling together all the loose ends,” he said. “We had to have certain types of medication and stuff (for Olena’s son) before we left the country.”

In spite of everything, Olena said they are doing well.

“Our honeymoon was literally a day and a half, but it was beautiful,” she said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

It took them nearly 24 hours to get to the border crossing, and at one point when they stopped for gas they were almost hit by enemy fire.

Currently, they are staying in an apartment in Warsaw.

“Up to this point, even through all the adversity, everything has been relatively smooth,” Patton said. “Now that we’re in Poland, our greatest challenge is the bureaucracy ... the government wasn’t prepared for so many people to come into the country at one time.”

He said they’re now having to work through all the red tape, finding the documents they need, jumping through all the hoops.

They’ve been told it could be weeks, or even months.

“We’ve reached out to Sen. Rubio’s office for help, and they’ve been gracious to us,” Patton said. “Her (Olena’s) son has severe muscular dystrophy and needs medical care, so getting to the states is extremely important for us.”

Patton said he is looking forward to introducing his new wife to Crystal River, showing her the manatees and taking her to breakfast at Grannie’s restaurant.

He said he also knows that anything can happen.

“I was just thinking today that God knows,” Patton said. “We are making our plans, but he is ordering our steps.”


Local
Around-the-clock alligator hunting supported

TALLAHASSEE — Wildlife officials agreed Wednesday to around-the-clock hours for alligator hunting but expressed some concerns about a new part of the hunting arsenal.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday directed staff members to set up rule changes that will ensure more daylight hours for alligator hunting in most parts of the state. The commission also supported allowing pre-charged pneumatic airbows with tethered lines as part of the equipment that alligator hunters can use.

But commissioners, meeting at the Tampa Convention Center, directed staff to look into modifying the allowed strength of airbows. That came after Robb Upthegrove, a Plant City resident from an alligator hunting family, expressed concerns about allowing just any hunter to use an airbow, which he said could be as strong as a “rifle.”

“It’s a great tool,” said Upthegrove. “But if it’s not used right, it could cause issues in the future.”

Commissioner Steven Hudson agreed.

“The intent is similar to the harpoon where it just pierces the skin, and they’re able to pull the gator in,” Hudson said. “If you do set it up, and you hit the gator in the right place, it could be lethal. And that’s not the intent.”

The state already allows a number of methods involving tethered lines, including crossbows, bows, snatch hooks and harpoons. Airbows, which are charged with an external high compression source to propel arrows, were not commercially available the last time the state updated its alligator harvest methods.

Brooke Talley, the commission’s alligator management program coordinator, said the change in hours – from between 5 p.m. and 10 a.m. to 24 hours during the hunting season – should help hunters better schedule their trips and potentially allow more young and senior hunters to participate, as they might be more comfortable hunting during the day.

“These program improvements will increase opportunity and flexibility for hunters, while providing greater clarity in the rule language,” Talley said.

The commission will have to sign off on the rule changes at its May meeting to be in place for the upcoming hunting season, which will run from Aug. 15 to Nov. 1.

The changes are considered part of the commission’s approach to managing the estimated 1.3 million alligators in Florida.

The state averages about 7,500 hunting permits a year as part of its alligator management program. The first statewide hunt in 1988 drew 229 permits.

Feedback from more than 7,000 people through workshops, webinars and surveys was largely supportive, Talley said. But concerns were raised, in part, that the 24-hour proposal would conflict with other outdoor activities, such as bass fishing and duck hunting, and that there is the potential for meat spoiling from alligators harvested during the hottest part of the day.

“We believe that they can be mitigated with additional planning and outreach,” Talley said. “For example, meat spoilage prevention tips are already available on our website.”


Local
FROM THE CAPITAL

Smoking restrictions get green light

A measure that would let local governments restrict smoking at beaches and parks is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Senate on Wednesday voted 30-7 to approve the proposal (HB 105), which would apply to beaches and parks owned by municipalities and counties. The local governments, however, could not prevent “the smoking of unfiltered cigars.” Senate sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said the intention of the bill was to get rid of cigarette butts that don’t quickly biodegrade.

Gruters

“If you live near a beach, the number one picked-up item consistently on an annual basis over and over again, are cigarette butts,” Gruters said. “What happens all the time is this second-hand smoke, to me it is disgusting. But what’s even more disgusting is when you reach into the sand and pick up one of those butts. And those filters that are in the cigarettes are what ends up in the water, destroying the environment.”

The House approved the measure in a 105-10 vote on Feb. 24. The proposal would build on a 2002 constitutional amendment that prohibited smoking in restaurants and at other indoor workplaces. The Senate had earlier sought to provide exemptions for cigars that do not contain filters or plastic tips and pipe tobacco.

House unanimously passes tax package

With unanimous support, the Florida House on Wednesday passed what Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, called the “coolest tax package” he’s seen produced by the House.

Sprowls

The wide-ranging package (HB 7071) is topped by four proposed sales-tax “holidays.” The House wants to offer a 14-day tax holiday in late July and early August on back-to-school items such as clothes, school supplies and personal computers; a 14-day holiday in late May and early June to prepare for hurricane season; a seven-day holiday around Independence Day to encourage people to be more active; and a seven-day holiday around Labor Day on tools and other work equipment.

Additional sales-tax breaks would be offered on baby clothes; diapers; children’s books; Energy Star refrigerators, washers, dryers and water heaters; impact-resistant windows, doors and garage doors; new mobile homes and admissions to Formula One Grand Prix races. Among other things, the package includes a proposal – inspired by last year’s collapse of the Champlain Towers South building in Surfside – to provide tax relief to property owners affected by a sudden and unforeseen collapse of a residential building.


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