Hundreds of Levy County residents went straight from work to the College of Central Florida Levy Campus in Chiefland on Tuesday night to send a ‘No Build’ message to organizers of an Alternative Corridor Evaluation (ACE) kickoff event.
Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise (FTE), which is part of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), held the kickoff event to start the planning of a potential turnpike extension that would start “from its northerly terminus in Wildwood to a logical and appropriate terminus as determined by the FDOT, per Senate Bill 100.”
The Legislature passed the bill known as “Highway Projects” in June 2021. It calls for a $35 million transfer to the FTE to be used for “a specified purpose beginning in a specified fiscal year and annually for up to 30 years thereafter.”
According to SB 100, FTE’s marching orders are to coordinate “with the Florida Turnpike Enterprise, to evaluate certain roadways for development of specific controlled access facilities and to include such projects in the work program, etc.”
Levy County residents have been here before, when the effort known as M-CORES (Multi Use Corridors of Regional and Environmental Significance) met with the same opposition and came to an end when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed SB 100 into law.
“I think this is somebody, or a group of people with a lot of money, who want to push development in Florida,” said resident Robert Marr. “And they don’t care about all of these people who spent their life savings to build a little dream in rural Levy County,”
Marr stood in line with hundreds of other residents who had the same message printed on bright green paper: “NO BUILD.”
In fact, not one person waiting to enter the event or at the event standing next to project posters said they understood the rationale or were in favor of the turnpike extension.
Organizers set up the event with experts and consultants standing next to poster boards on easels that included topics such as the study area, which includes Citrus, Levy, Marion, and Sumter counties.
Colorful poster boards mapped out future land use, including one that said the project would “enhance regional connectivity.” Others said the project would “accommodate increased travel demand,” “address regional congestion and safety,” and “improve hurricane evacuation.”
Residents stood around a poster that showed “preliminary alternative corridors with color coded lines representing alternative corridor North A, alternative corridor North B, alternative corridor Central and alternative corridor South.
Those preliminary lines for a turnpike extension would run through properties belonging to many of the event attendees, or even through their homes. That’s what attendees told the consultants they interacted with at each station.
Daryl Gordon lives on five acres in Morriston.
“I don’t want to see the neighborhood destroyed,” he said. “It’s going to be within 100 feet of my driveway and we’ve got beautiful horse trails up there next to the Goethe State Forest. My sister lives within a mile from me, but if this thing goes through, she’ll be blocked in.”
Most attendees thought they were going to a meeting where the FTE would give a presentation and they would speak and give feedback.
But event organizers only accepted comments on forms that were available at a comments station or at the sign-in stations. Organizers also gave directions on how to make comments online.
Dennis Doherty came straight from work at a towing company.
“All of the natural resources that are going to be affected, my neighbors that are going to be affected where their land is going to get split in half,” he said. “I’ve lived in Williston most of my life, and the way the line is going, it’s a few miles from my house.
Doherty said the highway is not needed.
“They can come up with a better solution than messing with our natural resources and our way of life in North Central Florida,” he said.
Attorney Brandon Peters of Williston said he has yet to meet someone in support of the turnpike extension, and he added that the meeting did not serve the community in a way they could be heard.
“They silenced Levy County residents in this format where they just mill around and look at a bunch of colorized photos,” Peters said. “I don’t feel this has been a public kickoff—it’s a propaganda campaign by Tallahassee.”
Of the more than 60 experts and consultants standing in five areas next to the same 12 postboards lined up in each area, none were allowed to talk to the media.
Only FTE spokesperson Angela Starke was allowed to go on record to explain the event that involved subject matter experts stationed at all project boards and a short video in one room.
“It’s a public involvement meeting,” Starke said. “The public comes out and gives us feedback about the project.”
The project description states that, “The Legislature finds that the extension of Florida’s Turnpike is in the strategic interest of the state.”
The supporting video to the statement on the Florida’s Turnpike video states the project is meant to “address the future transportation needs while minimizing environmental impacts.”
“This is a very early planning phase and the alternative corridor evaluation process allows you through GIS mapping and other means to identify corridors that might accommodate this project,” Starke said. “With that would be the opportunity to identify, evaluate, refine any one of those four corridors, and then from there the project moves on to a [project development and environment process] or is a no go.”
During the Tuesday morning Levy County Board of County Commissioners meeting, all four commissioners vowed to fight the extension.
“If anything’s got to have another road, it needs to co-locate with a road that we already have,” said Rock Meeks, vice chair of the commission. “And not affect 750 parcels of property in the county when we have an established road through the county,” he added, referring to US Highway 19.
Levy BOCC Chair John Meeks called the turnpike extension “a terrible idea.”
“Growth is going to happen,” he said. “A thousand people a day are moving to Florida, we have to embrace it. But this road doesn’t make sense. Let’s fix what we have for infrastructure, and then if another road is needed we’ll talk about it then.”
Meeks pointed to existing roads that need attention.
“Let’s four lane State Road 24, let’s four lane U.S. Highway 41, let’s widen some of these roads, and if we have to, create some bypasses, let’s do that,” he said.