CR 490 parkway overpass

Motorists pass by heavy construction as an overpass is built to carry travelers on the Suncoast Parkway over County Road 490 in Lecanto.

Members of the Suncoast Connector Task Force spent less time Wednesday trying to pinpoint areas for a massive road project to avoid and more time wondering why they were there in the first place.

The task force, set up by state law as the first step in extending the parkway from Citrus County north to either Interstate 10 or the Georgia border, discussed whether the road project is necessary and whether it will achieve what lawmakers hope — hurricane evacuation, connecting rural communities, economic development and replacing septic tanks with sewers.

Instead, task force members, particularly those representing rural counties north of Citrus, said they are concerned about the road’s impact on farms, springs, wetlands and forests.

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And while the 41-member task force includes representatives from trade groups such as the chamber of commerce, agriculture and trucking, participants said they really wanted to hear from the counties affected.

“They know their communities better than we do,” said Pegeen Hanrahan, former Gainesville mayor, who represents the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on the task force.

The project area involves Citrus and seven other counties: Levy, Dixie, Taylor, Jefferson, Gilchrist, Lafayette and Madison. The task force met Wednesday at the College of Central Florida in Lecanto.

Commissioners from those counties expressed a variety of viewpoints, including outright support for the toll road extension to skepticism.

Jefferson County Commission Chairman Betsy Barfield noted she drove to Lecanto for Wednesday’s meeting on U.S. 27 and U.S. 19 with little traffic.

Barfield suggested that instead of a new roll road, the state co-locate the parkway with U.S. 19, providing exits or bypasses near congested towns.

“How in the world are we going to keep our small towns viable?” she questioned.

Madison County Coordinator Brian Kauffman said said his community has numerous wetlands, but it also has economic issues as well that the Suncoast may solve.

“We could lose a little bit of wetlands to construct some roads,” he said.

Citrus County Commissioner Ron Kitchen Jr., who represents the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Commission on the task force, said no one wants to damage the environment in favor of growth.

“It would be absolutely crazy to say any one of us here … want to destroy our environment,” he said.

Levy County Commissioner Matt Brooks said the Suncoast should avoid springs protection zones west of U.S. 19. He noted Cedar Key has a thriving clam industry that employs hundreds of people.

He said residents are cautiously anticipating the Suncoast extension, but also want their way of life intact.

“It is old rural Florida,” he said.

Gilchrist County Commission Chairman Todd Gray agreed.

“This project will be disruptive to our little county, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad,” he said.

The Legislature, led by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, passed a bill creating task forces to study three toll road projects: Suncoast extension; Florida Turnpike extension from Wildwood to an unknown point at the Suncoast; and the Southwest-Central Florida Connector between Polk and Collier counties.

The groups will be meeting every other month through September 2020, when they will present final reports to the Legislature. The law calls for the roads to be built in the next 10 years.

Dixie County Commission Chairman Mark Hatch wondered whether the state should first determine whether the Suncoast extension is necessary before making plans for it.

“I feel like we’re beating a dead horse,” Hatch said, “before it’s even born.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.