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BYPASS FOES TURN OUT FOR ODOT

Waterville residents who oppose a proposed U.S. 24 bypass had 41 written questions yesterday for a state transportation official.

And within minutes of the arrival of Richard Martinko, Ohio Department of Transportation district deputy director in Bowling Green, people lined up with more questions as they met him with folded arms in a Providence Township barn.

"They are a well-organized group," Mr. Martinko said after taking an hour of questions from expressway opponents, led by the group Farming Americans Resisting More Unneeded Pavement, or FARMUP. "They are thinking and causing us to think. That's a good thing."

Most of the questions dealt with the dozens of alignments for a possible new U.S. 24.

"Nothing has been decided," Mr. Martinko said. The department plans to have one or two final proposals and more public meetings in December or January on the issue, he said. Improving the existing U.S. 24 remains an option, he said.

Meanwhile, he took criticism about comment cards recently submitted to the department.

A substantial majority of people who submitted the cards to ODOT during its latest round of U.S. 24 meetings oppose replacing the twisting two-lane road with an expressway on a new alignment.

Expressway opponents, led by FARMUP, contend the 353 negative opinions, compared with 182 favorable comments, point to mounting public distaste for building a new road across agricultural sections of Lucas and Henry counties.

"The more that people see this project, the less they like it," said Steve Kendall, a FARMUP spokesman.

Yesterday, Mike Kontak was one of the first to question Mr. Martinko.

"Not everybody is going to give their opinion in an official manner," he said in a later interview about the comment cards. "Not everybody is going to put their name in the hat. You judge public opinion by gatherings like this," he said.

"I wanted a small-town atmosphere. This will change all that," said Mr. Kontak, who moved to the area from Toledo about 16 years ago.

Others are worried about farmlands.

"It's going to destroy me and leave me with ground I can't get to," said Bob Weimer, who owns and farms three parcels and farms three more.

Mr. Weimer said he could lose about 120 of his 1,200 acres.

Rolland Mossman, 77, spoke about a farm that's been in his family for three generations.

"It cuts my farm in three places. I'm going to have a little corner. It just goes an at angle and chops it all up," Mr. Mossman said.

The event in Providence Township brought out State Rep. Lynn Olman (R., Maumee), who told the group he is mulling his opinions.

"It would be irresponsible for any sitting elected official to make a recommendation or take a position in the alignment study" prior to the reports, he said.

He said his public comments could taint the outcome of such reports and he is withholding comments until the reports are issued.

Meanwhile, groups on both sides are talking about the comment cards received by ODOT.

An ODOT official said the tally only proves U.S. 24 opponents have rallied together effectively.

"What we really have here is a very aggressive, very well-organized group," said Mike Ligibel, the planning administrator at ODOT's Bowling Green office. Joe Rutherford, a spokesman for Mr. Martinko, added that a vast majority of the estimated 1,600 people who attended the meetings didn't fill out a comment card.

Janice Braida, a spokeswoman for a rival citizens group, Safety Means Alternate Route 24 (SMART), said the numbers may not represent an accurate sample of those with strong opinions.

Officials received 578 comment cards and 57 opinions were submitted electronically. Along with those who indicated a preference on building a highway, 100 had "no clear opinion," according to a tabulation on ODOT's U.S. 24 web site.

Mr. Kendall said there is no reason SMART should not be able to rally as many supporters as FARMUP has, if in fact such support for SMART's position exists. All of the options ODOT is considering for improving U.S. 24 have potential not-in-my-backyard opposition, he said, since widening the road or building a new one across the countryside would affect different groups of people.

"What [the comment-card tally] tells me is, they don't have the people to turn out support for this," he said.

Mr. Ligibel said ODOT posted the numbers because officials want to acknowledge people who took time to fill out the comment cards and give an indication of the sentiment at the meetings. But the department is not going to rely on public opinion alone to decide what to do with U.S. 24. "This is not a popularity contest," Mr. Ligibel said. "We have a process to follow. Public opinion is one piece of the puzzle. It is not the determining factor."

Mr. Kendall said state officials have told his group that public comments are a vital part of the U.S. 24 study process. But Mr. Ligibel remarked that the most vital comments are ones that might alert the department to truly unique features that should be avoided if a new U.S. 24 is built. The fact that people in certain areas don't want a road built near their homes or that it would consume a particular amount of farmland are not as influential, Mr. Ligibel said. "The taking of farmland is not as sacred as a wetland, or as scary as a dump, or as impossible as a park," he said. "We have very sensitive corridors, with very valuable farmland."

While ODOT divided the possible U.S. 24 routes into several dozen segments, they fall into three general corridors that come close enough to each other at points to offer combination possibilities. One corridor roughly follows U.S. 24, and the other two are successively farther north. The department could decide to do nothing at all too.

One or more "preferred alternatives" will be submitted to the next round of formal meetings, to be held in early January, Mr. Ligibel said. "We don't just arbitrarily pick one if one doesn't rise to the surface," he said.

Staff writer Jason Williams contributed to this report.

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