In an emotional, sometimes raucous, sometimes unruly Dunedin City Commission meeting, the commission, after hours of discussion and some 40 residents speaking, decided not to reopen Patrica Avenue to through traffic.
However, the commission did not kill the topic. Instead, the commission asked city staff to take a month to study the issue further and to come back with additional solutions and options.
Discussion on reopening Patricia Avenue will resume at the Nov. 17 commission meeting.
Patricia Avenue had been closed in March due to heavy traffic using the street as a cut-through to access Dunedin High School. Since the road closure, motorists, instead of using the already congested Pinehurst Road, used alternate streets as a cut-through to the school, specifically San Salvador.
Staff studies showed that the traffic on San Salvador exceeded 1,000 vehicles on a weekday, which is far more traffic than the street is designed for.
As a result, city staff recommended the city reopen Patricia Avenue. This has long been a hot-button issue among residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
The gallery at the city hall was packed with an overflowing audience with dozens of citizens filling the patio entrance outside to listen to the proceedings and to wait in line to speak.
The speakers were roughly split.
City officials counted 40 residents who spoke before the commission. It took more than two hours for the last resident to have his say. Many were emotional, some demeaning. At least twice the audience turned unruly with members shouting at or interrupting commission members.
Near the end of the discussion, audience members rose as one and a number began walking towards the commissioners as if to argue with them or perhaps confront them. This prompted a Pinellas County Sheriff's deputy working security to stand between the podium and the commission as if to shield the city officials from protesters.
It took a full hour of regularly scheduled business before the Patrica Avenue issue was brought to the commission and a round of applause from the dozens of residents waiting outside could be heard inside the chambers.
The issue is so sensitive, Mayor Dave Eggers offered to recuse himself from discussion as he lives on Patricia Avenue. But city attorney Tom Trask said per his research Eggers was not in violation of any conflict of interest or ethical code.
As detailed in her written report to the city prior to the meeting, transportation and traffic engineer Joan Rice recommended reopening Patricia Avenue because of the sudden change in traffic patterns due to the street being closed in March.
Among the details in her report was documentation from a study conducted by Dunedin fire chief Bud Meyer that no matter the commission's decision, the timeliness of first responders would not be effected. This was an area of concern from many of the residents Thursday night.
To help stifle traffic after reopening Patricia Avenue, Rice offered to add three speed bumps at a distance of 600 feet to the street. The speed bumps would be removed from other areas of the city and added to Patricia Avenue to keep costs down.
This, however, didn't sit well with some commissioners and residents. Rather, many commissioners believed that would just move one problem to another neighborhood without solving the issue as a whole.
"I can't go back to creating a problem for one neighborhood to stop another," commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said. Taking speed bumps from other places is "not acceptable."
Vice Mayor Ron Barnette admitted that he was "divided all over the place" on the issue.
Commissioner Julie Scales seemed inclined to vote to reopen the street after hearing from residents that traffic on San Salvador after the closing was worse than the traffic on Patricia Avenue ever was.
Commissioner David Carson personally went door-to-door talking to residents of that neighborhood and spoke with 89 people. Of those people were virtually split down the middle as to whether to reopen the street.
Heidi Moser said the city has to do more than just reopen Patricia Avenue. If the city did so, it is unsafe as she said the street does not have sidewalks on both sides.
Donald Shaw didn't believe speed bumps would work and wanted the city to keep the street closed.
After the residents spoke, the commissioners debated. Bujalski noted that this was a part of a larger issue that the city has been debating for three years. She was the first to suggest she would vote to keep the street closed unless city staff came back with a much larger plan to control traffic in the neighborhood.
Bujalski believed, and her fellow commissioners began to agree, that opening Patricia Avenue would just move a problem rather than correcting a problem. Carson quoted a resident who told him the issue is forcing the commission to "chase its tail" without solving the larger issue of traffic in the area.
Rice admitted that even with the speed bumps there likely would be some cut-through traffic on Patricia Avenue.
"We are now riffraff because we no longer have a street that we all pay taxes for," Patricia Avenue resident Nancy Harris said. "Open the street. Give it back to us."
Sue Kraus wanted the city to add more speed bumps throughout the neighborhood to eliminate motorists from using any side street near the high school as a potential cut-through. This thought echoed with the commission.
"There is no absolute right or wrong answer," Bujalski said. "I don't know what the solution is to San Salvador without hurting Patricia-Highlands."
"This is like the Middle East peace talks," Scales said. "Will there ever be a solution? It's neighbor vs. neighbor; street vs. street; neighborhood vs. neighborhood. This tells me we are going about the wrong solution. Everything we have done has had unintended consequences."
The commission, with Barnette and Eggers voting aye, voted down the current proposal to reopen Patricia Avenue but did not close the book on opening the street back up.
Largely at the urging of Bujalski, city staff will study the issue further for the next month and return Nov. 17 with options to curb side street traffic throughout the high school neighborhood.
"I think you were worried about money when you came with this recommendation," Bujalski said to Rice. "Don't worry about the money. If we can find an overall solution to this, we can find the money."
Correction: Mayor Dave Eggers and Vice Mayor Ron Barnette voted in favor of the proposal to reopen Patricia Avenue. A previous version of this report misstated who voted in favor.