Robert Quinlan sits in his pickup at the end of his street, turns on the radio and waits.
The thick dust kicked up by the car in front of him clouds his vision. It’s “worse than the worst fog you’ve ever been in,” he said.
He waits for the dust to settle before he begins his bumpy ride on the rutted dirt road, made of lime rock. He dodges potholes and bobs over a series of ridges in the road. Like with the other car, a cloud of dust trails him.
And that’s when the road is dry. When it rains, another vehicle, Quinlan’s Harley, gets bogged down in mud.
“There’s days I’m like, ‘Nope, can’t use the road today,’” he said.
The section of road Quinlan has had problems traversing is Southwest 30th Avenue from Southwest 282nd Street to Southwest 298th Street (also known as Southeast 90th Avenue, which follows the Alachua-Gilchrist county line) in Newberry.
In July 2015, Quinlan wrote a petition, signed by about 20 residents, asking the city of Newberry to address the issue. He cited “clouds of lingering dust and dangerous levels of mud when it rains” as hazardous and unsafe road conditions. The city then directed him to the county because it’s a county road.
His vision for it: having it paved or chipsealed, which refers to a coating of liquid asphalt and rock chips being applied to the road.
“I can’t emphasize how extreme it gets when it’s dry,” he said. “During the summertime, when there’s no wind, you can sit here and watch a cloud” of dust.
When it rains, Quinlan said, the road has up to 6 inches of mud, which makes his truck slide sideways even while driving 5 to 10 miles per hour.
“It’s just mud slick, and you have no control,” he said.
Quinlan said such conditions lead to accidents, which he has seen himself and heard about from neighbors.
Newberry resident Ty Keys said one of his family members flipped a car on the road after running onto a dirt bank. The accident probably wouldn’t have happened if the road was paved, he said, but driver error did play a part.
In the past five years, Alachua County has responded to four accidents on the segment of the road, said Jeff Taylor, assistant chief of Alachua County Fire Rescue’s emergency medical services. But county medical responders aren’t always called out if there aren’t injuries reported.
Quinlan said some accidents might not be reported to authorities.
“The good ole boys usually just call somebody and say, ‘My truck just flipped. Somebody come get me out,’” he said.
His neighbor, Thad Howard, said he hasn’t witnessed any accidents himself, “but I could see where it could easily happen.”
The responsible party
“I pray you can find a way to solve this problem,” Quinlan wrote in his first letter to the Board of County Commissioners, after being told by the city of Newberry that’s whom he should contact.
Another neighbor, Robert W. Degroat, has contacted the county, too.
Degroat, a resident on the road for 18 years, said he told the county he “sure would appreciate it if you could do something.”
Yet there’s confusion between Newberry and the county about which one would potentially take on such a project.
Though it is a county-owed road, it and seven others are maintained by the city as part of what’s called an “interlocal agreement.”
“We have signed an agreement that says we maintain the road, so for us, that means grading,” Newberry City Manager Mike New said. Paving the road, he said, is an improvement, not maintenance.
Alachua County Engineer Ramon Gavarrete said agreed with New but said the county has no plans for now to pave the road.
Grading ensures a level road, addressing the problems with potholes and the washboard effect (ridges forming in the road).
Howard, a neighbor, said Newberry does respond quickly to grading requests, but the improvements last for only about a day.
“No matter which entity is paying for it, whether it be Alachua County or the city, the amount of money they’ve probably spent grading and adding lime rock to that road, they probably could’ve at least made the road out of asphalt millings,” Howard said.
The area stays rural
Howard said he relocated to Newberry almost 13 years ago because he “wanted to be where it was peaceful.”
He and his wife, Regina, previously lived nearby, on the corner of Southwest 30th Avenue and Southwest 298th Street, before Gilchrest County paved 298th. But because of the dust from the two roads, he built another house on the same property, farther along Southwest 30 Avenue.
Howard said his wife fought to get 298th paved and that it took about a year of complaining and calling to get the road graded before the county did eventually pave it.
Gilchrest County received a Department of Transportation grant as part of a small county road assistance program to pave the road, Gavarrete said, but Alachua County doesn’t qualify for it.
Howard said he takes responsibility for knowingly buying property on the troublesome road.
“We knew it was dirt when we bought it, so I can’t blame that on anybody,” he said. “But we didn’t realize it would be as dusty as it was and infiltrate the house like it did.”
Along with dust, Howard said he’s concerned with how the bumpy road affects his cars.
“It will beat the guts out of your car,” he said.
Nevertheless, Howard said he’s grateful that the road keeps the area rural. “Anyone who’s complaining has to understand: Sometimes it takes dirt roads and stuff like that to keep people from flocking all over it.”
The people affected
Now that he has contacted the county, Quinlan is hopeful the road’s issues will be addressed.
For him and his wife, these problems hit too close to home.
When Quinlan leaves the kitchen window open, the dust blows in – even though the house sits about a quarter of a mile off the road. Regina Quinlan, described as a “neat nut” by her husband, wipes her counters every day, turning the paper towels black.
Robert Quinlan considers windy days to be lucky, though, because without the wind, dust clouds hang.
The Quinlans said the dust permeates their lungs, too.
Guerry McClellan, a University of Florida geological sciences professor, said in an email that lime rock dust releases calcium carbonate, and “breathing quantities of this is hard on your respiratory system and can cause serious medical problems.”
Regina Quinlan’s mom, who also lived off the road, recently died of pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that scars the lungs.
“Gee-wiz, what a coincidence!” Robert Quinlan said. “She never smoked, never had any lung issues and all the sudden – bam!”
Although he acknowledges it can’t be proven, Robert Quinlan blames the dust, and he gets frustrated talking about the health issues he associates with the road.
When Regina Quinlan urges him to relax, he says, “Your mom dies of it, and God knows what’s going on with the rest of these people on the street!”
“I just feel the road is definitely dangerous,” Regina Quinlan added.
Money is necessary to pave the road, of course, and with many county roads in need of repair, Gavarrete said there’s higher priorities elsewhere.
A “special assessment district” — which taxes residents living along the road to pay for improvements — could potentially come up with the necessary money for repairs.
Gavarrete said the road, as well as the other seven under the interlocal agreement, poses an interesting situation. While the county has jurisdiction over the road, the city has annexed property on both sides.
“The special assessment would have to be within the city, with the county commissions having to be involved,” Gavarrete said.
For that to happen, residents have to initiate the process.
Howard said he would be willing to pay more in taxes to get the road paved or chipsealed, and Quinlan said he is eager to explore that option.
In an email to county commissioners, Gavarrete estimated the cost of chip sealing to be $110,000.