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Truck crash kills Venus man

VENUS — The Florida Highway Patrol has released details from the fatal car crash that took the life of a Venus man. Carlos Martinez-Leon, 28, was pronounced dead on Wednesday afternoon. The Florida Highway Patrol has notified the next of kin.

This is the third fatality resulting in single-vehicle crashes in the first eight days of the new year. All three fatalities have been on rural roads.

According to the official press release, Martinez-Lopez was driving a 2011 Ford F-350 southbound on Old State Road 8 south of Pimlico Road when he approached a right-hand curve. The truck did not take the curve and continued to head southeast.

The truck continued across the northbound lane and left the road, before hitting a fence head-on and then hitting a tree head-on. The impact with the tree sent the truck spinning clockwise and came to a stop with the front end facing southwest on the east side of Old SR 8.

The FHP report shows Martinez-Lopez was not wearing a seat belt. It is unknown if alcohol was a factor in the wreck.

FHP has also released the name of another man who died in a motorcycle wreck early Monday morning near Lake Placid.

At 4 a.m. Monday, at the intersection of CR 621 and Cypress Isle Lane, 45-year-old Dale Ray Strang was thrown off his 2005 Harley-Davidson motorcycle when it hit a wild hog that was in the roadway.

As he lay in the road, he was hit by another vehicle, which FHP troopers are still trying to identify and locate.

Anyone with information on the second vehicle is asked to call FHP at 239-938-1800 or FHP on a cell phone to give information.

Leadership Highlands helps students choose careers

SEBRING — Leadership Highlands Career Day for high school students took place Wednesday in the Alan Jay Arena. Leadership Highlands alumni Garrett Roberts said about 1,500 students walked through the doors.

About 65 businesses set up booths staffed with representatives or owners who spoke directly to students about their industry and the qualifications to join the field. Some fields required a college degree, such as being a lawyer, while others required a trade certification. Still others, such as Air and Electric Services, a trade certification may be what’s needed. Operations Manager Scott Kaplan said there are different ways to be successful in his field, where the average electrician makes $40,000 to $50,000. Interning or a four-year apprentice program can open that door.

“Everybody needs an electrician and HVAC,” Kaplan said. “It’s a great career opportunity for those who don’t want school debt.”

Zach Doorlag stopped at Kaplan’s booth; his dad works for the company. Doorlag said he wanted to do something different, such as play baseball or be an engineer.

The Palms of Sebring representatives Melissa Brunns and Julia Mercer participated with a booth.

“We wanted to educate the students what the options in the community,” Brunns said.

Mercer explained why her company participated.

“We have been around for 60 years now,” Mercer said. “Young people may not know what we do unless they have had a relative with us. We love to participate in any community outreach.”

Rebekah Wills heads up the career and technical programs for the Highlands County School Distrct.

“We don’t stop people from going to college, we offer alternative career paths and industry certificates,” Wills said.

Wills said many people will choose college and hopefully return to the area, while others will take technical jobs after training at South Florida State College.

The businesses that participated ran the gamut from banking, Glades Electric, to Highlands County Economic Development, county jobs, hospital jobs, and law enforcement and first responders. Many of the exhibitors had giveaways and others had interactive booths, such as the Alan Jay photo booth, the SWAT tank, ambulances and Aeromed’s helicopter. The SFSC criminal justice program showed teens the effects of alcohol by putting on special effects goggles and having them do a field sobriety test.

“It was weird,” student Kevin Su said. “I thought I was walking straight but everything was crooked.”

The Leadership Highlands Career Day is an alumni project taken on a few years ago.

Debate over toll road projects continues to flare

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories advancing the 2020 legislative session.

TALLAHASSEE — Gaining initial legislative support last year might have been the easy part for controversial and expensive toll-road projects envisioned to cut through more than 300 miles of mostly rural land from Collier County to the Georgia border.

With many environmental and business groups split about the need and purpose of the projects, lawmakers during the 2020 legislative session will start looking at continued funding and accompanying infrastructure — water, sewer and broadband — as tentative alignments for the roads will soon be rolled out.

Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who made the corridors a priority during the 2019 session, said the roads are “planning for reality,” because Florida continues to attract new residents and tourists.

“We cannot continue to plan infrastructure in reverse,” Galvano said.

The plan calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border, building a toll road from Polk County to Collier County and extending Florida’s Turnpike west from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway.

The timeline to start construction on the projects is less than three years off, as the Department of Transportation and task forces work on drawing up plans. Proposed alignments coming from the department are expected to allow the three task forces — one for each road — to better find consensus on where to weave lanes around farms, downtowns, natural springs and other sensitive lands. A report must be presented to the governor by October.

The alignments are almost sure to enflame efforts by opponents pushing a “no-build” option. Those opponents repeatedly warn the new roads will cause Broward County-style sprawl for people who want to live in small communities and will devastate already-endangered wildlife.

Neil Fleckenstein of Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, which owns 9,100 acres in Jefferson County, said more clarity is needed on the “fiscal reality” of the accompanying infrastructure being promised.

“One task force member mentioned, ‘Will every county get a water treatment facility and a wastewater treatment plant?’” Fleckenstein said. “Those are extremely expensive pieces of infrastructure. Tallahassee spent $250 (million), $260 million just revitalizing their wastewater treatment plant.”

Members of the “No Roads to Ruin” coalition, which includes Florida Conservation Voters, Friends of the Everglades, Bear Warriors United, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Our Santa Fe River, Earthjustice and Suwannee Riverkeeper, contend the roads are being driven by business-related special interests and that the money would be better spent on alternative forms of transportation. If traffic warrants the work, they argue the state should focus first on expanding existing roads.

Gary Cochran, a retired state land conservation and planning administrator now with the Big Bend chapter of the Sierra Club, said he’s never seen a transportation corridor or toll-road project that would benefit the environment.

“Yes, while it is true that these projects must mitigate for the taking and impacts on the environmental resources and public conservation lands within the projects scope, that mitigation does not improve the environmental resources, it does not prevent the destruction of those resources, or the bifurcation of wildlife habitats, the destruction of wetlands. It only mitigates, it does not replace the resources lost,” Cochran said.

Groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association are backing the roads.

Sally Patrenos, president of the Tallahassee-based Floridians For Better Transportation, considers the roads and accompanying infrastructure the most “forward-thinking” initiative in decades by the state.

“In the next five years we’re going to gain another 5 million people, all using the same infrastructure we have in place if we don’t look forward,” Patrenos said. “Infrastructure that is thoughtfully planned and responsibly built can go a long way in keeping pace with our exponential growth.”

Better defining the road locations should also heat up campaigns for and against the projects from communities that could be affected.

The biggest fight could be over the corridor from Polk County to Collier County, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas and has unsuccessfully been sought in the past as the Heartland Parkway.

But communities that could be involved in the other projects also are starting to choose sides.

At the north end, at least some leaders in Jefferson County are lambasting the prospects of the road.

Monticello Vice Mayor Troy Avera, whose family runs a bed and breakfast, said a fear in the community is that the extended Suncoast Parkway would bypass the downtown area.

“Intuition and experience tell me that a bypass of a small town will suck the life out of it,” Avera said. “All our businesses in Monticello depend upon traffic.”

Avera, who is concerned the city budget would suffer a drop in revenue, suggests the corridor should end at Interstate 10 until traffic warrants more northern work. Interstate 10 is several miles south of downtown Monticello.

Less than 20 miles to the east, in Madison County, Greenville Town Manager Edward Walker Dean said his impoverished community would take the road if its neighbors in Jefferson County don’t want it.

“I’m looking at this toll road as being something that will change the plight of this community, bring some new energy in here,” Dean said. “I don’t think the rank and file of these communities really, really know and understand, and there is a natural inclination — anytime (you are) talking about something that is big, is robust, you have to be a visionary. Greenville is the kind of place that could benefit tremendously. Get a Busy Bee’s (convenience store) or something like that in here. You can work to build something sustainable over time.”

Michele Arceneaux, a Monticello-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce board member, said Madison County and others that envision the road as an economic panacea should be careful about what they want, as no matter how close to a downtown the corridor is located, motorists will favor franchised businesses at interchanges.

“Limited access roads do not bring meaningful jobs, unless you think fast food and gas stations are quality economic development,” Arceneaux said. “And I-10 is the perfect example of this. The minimum-wage jobs associated with I-10 were at the expense of local business in our downtown.”

The corridors, which received first-year funding of $45 million during the 2019 session, have been promoted as providing more emergency evacuation options, along with handling the state’s expanding population.

Annual funding is projected to reach $140 million by 2023 and to continue through 2030, totaling $1.1 billion. Critics contend the cost estimates are low.

For lawmakers who must annually approve the funding, the focus during the 2020 session, which begins Tuesday, will be the accompanying water, sewer and broadband systems, which have been touted as benefits for rural communities.

Galvano said the projects won’t destroy the environment, and more people will understand the opportunities available as the designs come to fruition.

“The population is going to continue to grow,” Galvano said. “The need will continue to be there. And if we’re forward-thinking, we’ll actually have a net benefit to the environment, whether it’s focusing some of our mitigation opportunities on conservation and even coastal resilience, looking for innovative components to these infrastructure programs, autonomous and other type of mass transit opportunities. It’s a planning for reality and not just throwing up opposition, because folks are coming.”

A note from the publisher

The advertisements on A1 this week have provoked many emotions from our readers, whether it has been the sticker ads protesting this weekend’s gun show, or the banner ad across the bottom of the front page promoting the gun show.

It is important to remember that these are advertisements, not opinions of the Highlands News-Sun ownership, publisher, nor individual staff members. The paid advertisements are the opinions of those people paying for them, or an event ad detailing the event times and location.

More important, we should remember that the Constitution is a document that all of us should want to protect and support. The advertiser who is bringing the gun show to Highlands County has the same right as the advertiser who is protesting the show. Those people who choose to attend the gun show this weekend have the same right as those who choose not to.

We, the people of the United States, have got to do a better job supporting all of the amendments, whether it is the First Amendment that protects our freedom of speech, or the Second Amendment that protects our right to bear arms. The Constitution, with its amendments, is the law of the land.

People tend to make light of the First Amendment when it does not agree with the way they think. The Highlands News-Sun, as a newspaper, has an ethical right to give both sides of any issue the same platform to debate the topic. Whether we agree with their opinion or not.

The Highlands News-Sun will continue to operate with equal consideration to all sides in our news coverage and give equal rights to our advertisers when a decision is made to advertise an opinion or a business.

The importance of a free press is never more clear than in times such as this. For those who say a newspaper’s value is a thing of the past, the events of the first eight days of the year and the public response clearly remind us of the overwhelming impact a newspaper has in a community.

— Tim Smolarick, vice president and group publisher of D-R Media and publisher of Highlands News-Sun

Four vie for open Sun 'N Lake seat; Gilpin unopposed for reelection

SEBRING — Four Sun ‘N Lake residents, including one who recently served on the Board of Supervisors, have put in their names on the ballot for this month’s landowner seat election.

Mark Camp of Pebble Beach Drive, Craig Herrick of Cremona Drive, Javita McKinney of Palazzo Street and V. Ward Miller of Manor Drive have all requested to run for the remaining two years of the term vacated recently by Supervisor Dan Stegall.

Camp was originally appointed to the board in 2016 to fill a seat vacated by the late supervisor Richard Miller. Camp later resigned from the board on Nov. 7, 2018, while serving as board president.

His resignation letter, brief and to the point, stated, “Effective immediately, I have tendered my resignation as a member of the SNL Board of Supervisors.”

Supervisor Mike Gilpin has filed for re-election to his current seat for another four-year term. He is unopposed at this time.

The other three supervisors, elected by popular vote, are Joe Branson, Raymond Brooks and Neal Hotelling.