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‘No build!’ Sumter’s rural residents pressure county to fight Turnpike project

SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. — More of Sumter County’s rural community members are joining together to fight a planned extension of the Florida Turnpike.

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On Tuesday, residents of the mostly white Tillman’s Hammock and mostly Black Royal stood outside the county commission meeting, waving signs and making speeches denouncing any plans to put a highway through – or near – their land.

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“There’s no dollar amount I want for my land. I want to stay where I am,” longtime Royal homeowner Kathy Towns insisted.

Although the northern extension of the road past I-75 has been planned for years, the controversy surrounding it sparked up this past winter and spring when FDOT’s released four proposed alternate routes for the project. All four appeared to cut through at least 30% of Royal’s homes, churches and businesses.

Local leaders became involved and sent letters to FDOT asking that the agency consider a route that steered to Royal’s south and west. Nearby Tillman’s Hammock residents noticed the proposals forced the highway through their lands instead.

“Our first knee jerk reaction was, ‘They’re bad,’” longtime Tillman’s Hammock homeowner Rick Stagg said, describing initial feelings of bitterness toward the nearby community’s members. “When you think about it, nobody wants it in their backyard. I don’t want it my backyard, so how can I expect it to go through their backyard?”

Members of the two communities began calling one another – and the no build movement took off.

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Supporters of the no build movement want FDOT to consider scrapping their proposed project altogether, or a “no build” alternate option, as the name suggests. Instead, they want FDOT to consider widening I-75 to cut the amount of congestion on the road instead.

Sumter County commissioners have yet to sign off on the movement, but they drew some cheers from the crowd gathered before them when they said they wanted to keep any project within I-75′s existing right-of-way, effectively cutting out routes that disturb the two rural settlements.

However, FDOT leaders and the state government have the final say. The state has wanted to extend the Turnpike for a long time, both to provide another evacuation route from South and Central Florida, as well as providing a way to develop the sparsely populated region of the state.

FDOT previously explained that the proposed alternate routes were drawn using basic data that didn’t take characteristics of the community, like Royal’s historic cemeteries where freed slaves were buried, into account.

Agency leaders said they would refine the proposed corridors using more advanced sets of data and community feedback moving forward, while evaluating a no build option.

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“The Department has received comments from across the four-county study area and is continuously evaluating those comments,” spokeswoman Angela Starke wrote. “We appreciate the robust engagement from residents and stakeholders. We believe public feedback is one of the most critical parts of the project development process and will continue to welcome comments at the project’s website at www.Florida’sTurnpike.com/NTE.”

Sumter County leaders told the audience public hearings for the project’s more finalized route are expected to take place in the spring of 2023.

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