By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
Bitter disagreement over a proposed Dixie Highway improvement project is pitting neighbor against neighbor in Fort Lauderdale’s Middle River Terrace neighborhood.
The fight is between former city commissioner Tim Smith and Laura Croscenco, president of the neighborhood association, and their minions, with recently elected Commissioner Dean Trantalis trying not to get hit in the crossfire.
The rift has “exposed raw nerves that (have been) festering beneath the surface,” said Trantalis, who represents the area. What’s happening is a “total personality conflict,” he said.
The debate is about how best to improve a 1.2-mile stretch of Dixie Highway that winds through a mostly residential neighborhood of single-family houses and small apartment buildings from NE 13 Street north to Wilton Manors.
Two years ago, the Middle River Terrace Neighborhood Association appointed Croscenco to research how to improve roadway safety for pedestrians, slow down traffic, reduce traffic crashes and improve drainage. Croscenco continued with the project after she was elected to president of the association last August.
A FUNDING SOURCE
The Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has agreed to contribute $2.3 million for part of the project that would add four-foot wide bicycle lanes to each side of a 20-foot wide road. Dixie Highway currently is 24 feet wide.
An additional $2.1 million for landscaping and other needs would be sought from grants.
The bicycle lanes proposal is similar to the MPO’s plans for Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors, according to MPO director Greg Stuart. Wilton Manors has approved its upgrade.
The MPO, with a board of Broward elected officials and community leaders, funnels federal transportation monies to local projects. If Fort Lauderdale accepts the bike lanes proposal, construction on Dixie Highway in both cities would begin in about two years, Stuart said.
Four days later, Tim Smith, an ex-commissioner who resides in the area, sent out an email against the bike lanes plan. He claimed mature trees would be cut down and that the project would make Dixie “a large boulevard.”
Croscenco argued back, claiming in emails that the MPO had refused to fund Smith’s preference for a single shared-use path on the east side of Dixie for cyclists and pedestrians because cyclists would be endangered from vehicles quickly backing out of driveways onto the pathway.
In an interview, Smith said he does not think the shared-use path idea is unsafe.
“How come (motorists) haven’t run into people in the last 15 years when bicycles use the current sidewalks?” he said. “That is where everybody’s been riding and walking and nobody has been hit.”
The personal nature of the dispute is evident in mass emails sent by both sides.
“The neighborhood has been fractured since you became president,” Smith told Croscenco on Dec. 12. “We always worked as a team before, but meetings are now contentious and unnerving, and the neighborhood is losing a lot of respect with the city…I too hope you will resign and will support any move to impeach you.”
Smith is a founding member of the Middle River Terrace Neighborhood Association and a voting president emeritus.
On Feb. 7, past association president Randall Klett emailed Croscenco with a similar sentiment: “I suggest you resign as president…to save yourself the embarrassment of being voted out of office.”
Croscenco fired back the same day, accusing Smith and Klett of bullying her and others. “Dixie Highway (does) not belong to Smith/Randall (Klett),” she said.
Croscenco’s opponents failed to oust her during a Feb. 10 association meeting.
The hostilities have seeped into city electoral politics. Smith supported Trantalis and Croscenco supported his opponent Charlotte Rodstrom in last March’s election to fill Fort Lauderdale’s District Two commission seat. Trantalis beat Rodstrom by 18 votes.
Croscenco had told Trantalis that as association president she would remain neutral in the election. So Trantalis became upset when he spotted a Rodstrom sign in her front yard.
“Have your ethics…changed recently?” Trantalis asked in a Feb. 23 email. Croscenco replied that her husband planted the sign.
In a Feb. 5 email, Klett implied that Rodstrom was helping Croscenco. “Shame on Laura Croscenco and Rodstrom,” Klett wrote.
The animosities reached a crescendo May 25 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach when Croscenco confronted Trantalis. Both were attending a party to celebrate inductees into the city’s Hall of Fame.
Croscenco said she approached Trantalis and asked, “Do you really want to lose $2.3 million for the Dixie Highway project?”
“Stop nagging me. I’m here to have a good time…I’m working to put people together,” she said Trantalis replied, while pointing his finger at Croscenco.
Croscenco, a native of Italy, said the commissioner later lectured her about democracy and said the neighborhood should vote on which project to adopt “because that’s how we do it here.”
Croscenco shot back that Trantalis wanted the neighborhood to vote for a project that will not be funded and “never can be built.”
Trantalis confirmed that Croscenco approached him at the hotel. She “launches into it…She wouldn’t stop,” he said, following him as he attempted to walk away. Trantalis said her “passion doesn’t have to morph into… (being) condescending.”
The acrimonies have continued. In a May 30 email, association secretary Domingo Cid asked, “Should the influence of Tim Smith…be allowed to put the lives of the residents…in harm’s way for his own gains?”
“My wife just told me that you have accused me…of some sort of unspecified corruption,” Smith replied the following week. “If you ever do that again…we will follow through with unrelenting legal action to make you prove it or pay dearly for your folly.”
‘MAKE A DECISION’
Trantalis said in an interview that although he “sympathizes” with the shared-use path proposal, he wants to put a straw vote to Middle River Terrace residents and/or property owners to determine which plan has the most support.
Other city commissioners shot down that idea at a June 18 meeting.
Mayor John P. “Jack” Seiler called it “expensive” and told Trantalis the commission would support whatever proposal he endorses because he represents the neighborhood. Commissioner Romney Rogers quipped, “Do you want us to vote to where you will be going on vacation?”
“You are elected to make a decision,” City Attorney Harry Stewart reminded Trantalis.
“It is some type of Greek tragedy I’m dealing with,” said Trantalis, referring to the animosities in an interview after the meeting. “I need a chorus to tell me what to do.”
Recently, Trantalis said he’s leaning toward the plan that’s got the MPO funding if traffic-calming devices like speed humps are added.
William Hladky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org