ESTERO, Fla. - An unexpected $10 million congressional earmark might seem like money from heaven for a fast-growing county needing billions for transportation improvements, but that's not the case with Coconut Road.
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The congressman who represents the area says he didn't ask for it. But U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, sent the money anyway and made it clear it could only be used on Coconut Road.
No local public officials asked for the earmark, which specifically calls for a study on connecting Coconut Road to Interstate 75 in southwest Florida's Lee County.
"It just came out of the sky," Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah said.
Then last week, The New York Times reported a Michigan builder who threw a $40,000 fundraiser for Young in Florida two years ago owns thousands of acres of undeveloped land that would become a lot more valuable if Coconut Road were extended and connected to the interstate.
Judah and other members of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization are scheduled to discuss the $10 million earmark again on Friday. The News-Press of Fort Myers reported Thursday that the national controversy surrounding the money may push officials to reject it.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization, made up of 15 local elected officials, had considered connecting Coconut Road to I-75 in long-term plans, but twice pulled it - even after Young's appropriation. The organization was rebuked by Young when the members suggested applying the $10 million to more pressing I-75 projects.
Young's response, in effect: Use the $10 million for Coconut Road or lose it.
U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fort Myers, followed up with a January 2006 letter warning county officials of sending Congress an "unintended message ... that our region is willing to reject scarce federal resources." Mack also said rejection might keep the county from getting federal money for other important projects. Jeff Cohen, Mack's chief of staff, said this week the congressman now supports any decision local transportation officials make.
Mack invited Young to southwest Florida to discuss transportation issues with local leaders in February 2005, a meeting that helped secure $81 million in federal support for crucial I-75 widening projects in the growing region. Reporters at the Naples Daily News and News-Press of Fort Myers soon discovered the unusual $10 million Coconut Road earmark.
Last week, the Times connected Young's appropriation to Daniel J. Aronoff of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., whose companies own thousands of acres that would increase in value if Coconut Road connector were built. During the 2005 visit, Aronoff hosted a fundraiser that brought in $40,000 to the congressman's campaign.
Aronoff did not return phone messages left at his Bloomfield Hills, Mich., offices on Thursday.
Joe Mazurkiewicz, who served on the county's transportation planning board when he was mayor of Cape Coral, said discussion at the fundraiser focused only on I-75 expansion. He said Young's added earmark was a surprise. But he said the study is needed because development already under way increases the need for interstate access in the area.
"Why would we not use the money when we have it now?" Mazurkiewicz said.
Young, who gained national attention for securing $200 million for a bridge project linking an Alaska island community to its airport, lost his influential post as chairman of the House Transportation Committee when Democrats took control of Congress in January.
Young's spokeswoman responded to an interview request by faxing several pages of articles and editorials supporting the Coconut interchange, including one from Florida Gulf Coast University President William Merwin who called the project "vital."
The spokeswoman declined to comment further on the issue.
Don Scott, director of Lee County's Metropolitan Planning Organization, said a two-year $800,000 interchange justification study would begin next month unless the organization's board votes Friday to abandon the interchange idea.
Connecting Coconut Road to I-75 could cost as much as $40 million and remains a low priority compared to the interstate widening project, Scott said. He said connecting Coconut Road east of I-75, where Aronoff's property is located, would face a series of regulatory hurdles, including concerns about sensitive wetlands in the path of the road. A recent study found the wetlands are a vital part of the region's water supply.
"It's possible, but I don't know if it's probable," Scott said of the interchange.
But Judah said Aronoff could use the interchange to justify zoning changes or even move to get the land annexed into nearby Bonita Springs with different development rules. Current zoning rules allow only one house per 10 acres on the land.
"I want to see those environmentally sensitive lands protected," Judah said.