Residents of the Royal area of Wildwood came out in force Tuesday night to protest an alternative for extension of the Florida Turnpike that would bisect their community.
They pressed Sumter County commissioners to support a “no build” option for the extension.
Instead, commissioners voted to send a letter to a turnpike official that would not oppose the extension, but make sure it steers clear of Royal.
Royal is an African-American community on Wildwood’s west side that dates back to just after the Civil War when former slaves were given plots of land there. Some of their descendants still live on that land.
The community was divided in 1964 by construction of Interstate 75 and residents said they didn’t want to see it happen again.
The letter, which may be sent jointly with the city of Wildwood, would require that the extension remain south of State Road 44 until it is west of Interstate 75.
Signed by County Administrator Bradley Arnold and Wildwood City Manager Jason McHugh, the letter would be sent to Jennifer A. Stults, the turnpike’s planning and environmental management administrator.
After hearing Royal residents support the “no build” option, Commissioner Garry Breeden said the letter should say that Sumter County’s preference is “no build,” but if the extension is built, it should not harm Royal.
But Commissioner Doug Gilpin said that could anger state officials determined to build it and County Chairman Craig Estep agreed.
Gilpin suggested that Florida transportation officials fly over Royal so they can understand the community’s importance.
“The roots are deep in Royal and I would never support anything that would (interfere) with that,” he said.
Arnold said supporting a “no build” option probably wouldn’t have any impact because the turnpike extension is authorized by state law and will be built.
That didn’t stop Royal residents from unanimously calling for “no build.”
Amanda Corbin said some people would be forced out of their homes.
“If we do build, where do those people go?” she asked. “We have a big affordable housing crisis in Sumter County.”
Royal already is divided by I-75, said Cliff Hughes.
“We do not need the community divided, torn up or anything else,” he said. “I’m really for the no-build.”
Greg Williams said it doesn’t make sense to build a new road when existing roads need fixing.
“It’s a slap in the face,” he said. “I wonder why they want to bring in a new highway when the roads are so bad in Royal.”
Levi Solomon said his elderly mother lives west of I-75 and he doesn’t want to see her displaced. Gerald Corbin said widening I-75 and U.S. 301 are better options.
Expanding I-75 to eight lanes is the best alternative, said Ash Marwah, a Democratic candidate running this fall against Rep. Brett Hage, R-Oxford.
Marwah said a study already is under way to widen I-75 and the project could be done with federal infrastructure funds.
“You don’t have to disturb anybody,” he said. “You don’t have to take property by eminent domain.”